Last month, UCS—along with Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment, Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Protect Democracy—requested that EPA reopen nominations for positions on its advisory committees with openings and reinstate advisors to committees from which they were removed after its illegal directive was implemented in 2017.
The response from the agency in July was disappointing and seemed like it disagreed with our argument that the court’s decision compelled the agency to reopen nominations. EPA’s Donna Vizian responded to the letter on July 25th writing, “The court’s decision does not require the EPA to revisit the membership compositions of committees that were already in place at the time of the decision. Further, it does not require the Agency to reinstate individuals who declined committee membership to preserve their grants.” In other words, EPA wasn’t going to act, even though it had the power and the responsibility to do so.
Fast forward to August and EPA seems to have reversed its decision and has reopened nominations for several of its advisory committees: The Science Advisory Board (SAB) and its subcommittees, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC), and the National Governmental Advisory Committees to the U.S Representative to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. In the Federal Register notice reopening nominations for the SACC, EPA writes, “On April 15, 2020, a federal district court vacated the grants policy articulated in EPA’s 2017 federal advisory committee membership directive. In light of that intervening decision, EPA is extending the nomination and public comment periods to receive additional nominees and input on prospective candidates for the SACC.” Rather than accept our request formally, they sat on it for weeks, then took a piece of our suggestion and made it look like their own.
The problem is, it’s not enough. Each federal register notice only opened the nomination process for roughly two weeks, which is barely any time for experts to nominate themselves or be nominated. Further, it does not reinstate experts removed from committees in 2017. Thus, it places the burden to help rebalance committees on those who have been wronged by the agency.
The need for independent science advisors
Two of the committees with reopened nominations are science advisory committees: SAB and SACC. EPA released its initial list of nominees that it would consider for 15 open slots on the Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals. The list of over 50 nominees includes many individuals qualified to serve on the committee alongside others with clear conflicts of interest or whose prior work or affiliations suggest a lack of impartiality. Take, for example, the nomination of Michael Dourson.
Dourson was nominated by President Trump to lead the EPA’s chemicals office in 2017 but after a hearing in which all of his conflicts and questionable scientific calls were brought to light and ensured he wouldn’t have the votes for Senate confirmation, he withdrew from consideration.
The EPA needs to choose from a list of independent and objective candidates rather than those riddled with financial conflicts and questionable associations with the regulated industry. Over the past three years, it has missed out on valuable advice from individuals who were barred from applying due to former Administrator’s Pruitt’s advisory committee directive. As we wrote in our letter to EPA: “EPA grants are funded through a highly competitive process on the basis of merit and promise. Recipients tend to be among the most knowledgeable experts on the issues upon which EPA is seeking advice. That is why, when this Administration issued a directive preventing such individuals from serving on advisory committees, so many took notice and spoke out in opposition. Now that the directive has been rescinded, the Agency must ensure that the most qualified individuals in their fields have the opportunity to advise on critical science and policy issues.”
As EPA political appointees have done almost everything in their power to control the makeup and decisions made by its advisory committees over the past three years, it is important that the scientific community get involved to stand up for science-based decisionmaking. Qualified experts must fill empty spots so that the agency can continue to hear the critical feedback it needs to ensure it is using science to protect the environment and public health. If you or a peer is qualified for these positions, I would encourage you to apply as soon as you can. We’re counting on you!
SAB is asking for nominations to fill several spots on the FY21 main committee and subcommittee by August 31. This includes the chair, Michael Honeycutt, who is not planning to serve another term.
National Governmental Advisory Committees to the U.S Representative to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation is asking for nominations by August 21.