A federal court has vacated the Trump administration's "secret science" Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule, which critics had said would undermine the use of public health studies in agency rulemaking.
The decision comes after the Biden administration asked the court to throw out the rule restricting the EPA’s use of studies that don’t make their underlying data publicly available.
In his order vacating the rule and remanding it to the EPA, Montana federal District Judge Brian Morris noted that the agency argued that a prior court ruling eliminated the rule's legal basis.
"Defendants explain that in light of the Court’s conclusion that the Final Rule constitutes a substantive rule, the Environmental Protection Agency lacked authorization to promulgate the rule pursuant to its housekeeping authority, which is the only source of authority identified in the Final Rule," said the order from Morris, an Obama appointee.
The Trump EPA classified the rule as procedural, rather than substantive, which allowed it to become effective immediately under the agency’s housekeeping authority rather than having to wait for the standard 30 days after Federal Register publication.
Morris, in a decision last week, ruled against this, determining that the rule was substantive, not procedural, terminating the agency's fast-track of it.
“The Final Rule’s status becomes particularly clear when one examines what it is missing — any kind of procedure. EPA itself noted in its rulemaking that it would have to issue future guidance on how the rule operates procedurally,” he wrote at the time.
That decision delayed it from going into effect, making it subject to a Biden administration freeze and review on Trump-era rules that were not yet effective.
Prior to the court decision on Monday, the rule appeared to be under White House review.
Trump administration officials had billed it as a transparency measure and a way to combat "secret science." Opponents warned that it could hamstring the use of major health studies that keep their data under wraps for legitimate reasons including privacy.
The rule didn’t eliminate the use of all studies with private data but gave preference to those with public data.
An EPA spokesperson said in an email that the agency was "pleased" with the decision to vacate the rule.
"EPA is committed to making evidence-based decisions and developing policies and programs that are guided by the best science," the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, environmentalist groups that had sued over the rule celebrated the court order.
"Today’s decision is great news for EPA’s ability to use rigorous, lifesaving science to protect all Americans from dangerous pollution and toxic chemicals,” said Environmental Defense Fund senior attorney Ben Levitan in a statement.
— Updated at 2:56 p.m.