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EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards after court losses

EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards after court losses
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will no longer defend a policy that blocked scientists from serving on its committees if they receive agency funding for their research.

The controversial 2017 policy created under former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities | Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire | Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities Overnight Energy: Barrett punts on climate, oil industry recusals | Ex-EPA official claims retaliation in lawsuit | Dems seek to uphold ruling ousting Pendley MORE is credited with skewing the EPA’s advisory boards in favor of industry representatives while booting academics.

The EPA has lost three suits challenging the policy, with each decision released this spring.

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The agency announced Wednesday it will not appeal the decisions, adding it "will continue to follow the relevant policies as they existed before issuance of the 2017 directive."

Pruitt had argued it was a conflict of interest for EPA grant recipients — often some of the foremost experts in their field — to advise the agency. Several scientists were dismissed from boards, while others did not receive a customary renewal for a second term.

While the decision strikes down the policy, it does not require the EPA to reconfigure the composition of any of its current advisory boards.

But Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the groups that sued over the policy, said it’s important to nix it from the books so Trump appointees or others don’t continue the practice going forward.

“The idea was if you received money from the agency you would do the agency’s bidding even though there’s no evidence to support that,” he said. “But people who worked for industry for years either directly or as contractors were fine. Only grants gave you bias, not income or contact with industry.”

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However, the administration's statement Wednesday indicated that the EPA could pursue a similar policy by issuing a supplemental ethics regulation with the backing of the Office of Government Ethics, an independent agency within the executive branch.

“The court’s decision does not prevent future actions by EPA to regulate the composition of its advisory committees, including policies or regulations governing the participation of committee members who receive grants from EPA. Nor does it call into question EPA’s responsibility to ensure the independence of its committee members or its authority to reverse past policies when supported by a reasoned explanation,” the agency said. 

The EPA’s policy has come under fire not just in the courtroom but also from within government ranks.

A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the EPA did not follow the process for selecting the “best qualified and most appropriate candidates” for two important committees that advise on environmental regulations and “did not ensure that all appointees met ethics requirements.”

Even with a shifting balance of its members, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board has repeatedly criticized Trump administration policies for failing to be firmly grounded in science.