EPA Science Advisory Board Should Keep Pushing EPA to Adhere to the Best Available Science

January 17, 2020 | 5:25 pm
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The EPA’s Science Advisory Board is meeting this week and next to discuss the scientific basis for several EPA proposals, including the so-called transparency rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Rule, the Safe Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule, and agency regulations to define the scope of waters federally regulated under the Clean Water Act (WOTUS).

The release of the four draft reports was twice delayed by the EPA, and their conclusions drive home that these proposals are more politically motivated than driven by any real scientific or technical need. The EPA’s advisors found, for example, that its restricted science proposal “could be viewed as a license to politicize” the science that underlies EPA regulations.

My colleague, Dr. Gretchen Goldman, and I provided comments on these reports at a public teleconference today along with over 30 commenters, with the majority speaking up in opposition to the EPA’s proposals being reviewed by its advisors.

After these teleconferences, the SAB will finalize the recommendation letters and send them to Administrator Wheeler. With the ball in his court, will he choose to heed the call of his advisors and follow the best available science, or will he disregard the advice and continue to find ways to further diminish SAB’s oversight role? Seeing as he has already exerted more control over the process to select proposals to review, almost definitely because of the advisors’ decision to take a look at these rules in the first place, I expect that Wheeler will continue to dig in his heels and accelerate the finalization of these harmful policies despite harsh criticism.

You can find the joint UCS and Earthjustice statement on the SAB’s Strengthening Transparency review report here. Our statement on all four of the SAB reports can be found here. And the comments that Gretchen and I made today can be found below.

Good afternoon. My name is Genna Reed, and I am the lead science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the SAB’s draft letter regarding EPA’s Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science proposed rule. We appreciate the amount of time and effort that went into this detailed report in such a short time period.  

We support the SAB’s comments that the strengthening transparency rule ignores key considerations and that EPA has not articulated a problem that would be solved with this rule. We also believe that this rule is a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist. The proposed rule as drafted, and the supplemental rule as reported by the New York Times, would waste enormous resources, make data more vulnerable to misuse and exploitation, and make it nearly impossible for the EPA to use the best available science to inform mission-critical decisions. And that is not merely an incidental consequence of the proposal, but rather is its intended purpose.

The SAB should highlight in its final letter to EPA the following issues with the rule:

  • It is unlawful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it would preclude EPA from meeting its statutory requirement to use the “best available science,” as well as permitting the Agency to arbitrarily and capriciously select which information to use in decisionmaking.
  • It offers no information on where the raw data collected would reside, how the resources to manage the data would be obtained, or how the Agency would protect data that is confidential or sensitive as it is legally and ethically obligated to do.
  • It is problematic that the proposal demands additional consideration of non-linear concentration-response models, even when not scientifically justified.
  • EPA’s intention to apply this rule retroactively to studies conducted prior to implementation of the rule is entirely unreasonable as established scientific practice does not require indefinite retention of underlying data.

As a matter of process, EPA should have involved SAB far earlier in the development of this rule, for a full review rather than the initial consultation that was held. Perhaps if it had, the rule would not blatantly violate best scientific practices and be the target of opposition throughout the scientific community. It is almost certain that, at this stage, the SAB’s recommendations will come too late to adequately inform the rule’s development. We urge the Board to include in its final letter a recommendation that EPA not finalize a rule that has received substantial and well-reasoned pushback from its science advisors and the broader scientific community.

Finally, recent EPA changes to the SAB’s process for determining which regulatory actions to review will give the administrator and chair unprecedented control over the SAB’s workload without opportunities for public comment. These closed door conversations will hamstring the SAB’s ability to provide timely independent, feedback on EPA’s decisions as required under the Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act (ERDDAA). This, in addition to the recent trend of providing consultations rather than full consensus reports, are troubling changes to established procedures that have ensured the strength and credibility of the SAB over time. To maintain the integrity of the SAB, we recommend that SAB raise these concerns with Administrator Wheeler. Thank you and you may find our full written comments on the SAB website.

And Dr. Gretchen Goldman’s comments are below:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I am the Research Director in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Today I am speaking to the SAB regarding its letter on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Rule. We appreciate the SAB’s decision to look critically at these proposed EPA actions.  

On MATS, the agency’s proposal is likely to have a significant negative effect on public health, both directly and by establishing damaging precedent. It is imperative that the SAB elevate the best available science in its recommendations. The SAB must also avoid introducing uncertainty on issues reflecting long-standing best practices.  

There have been significant advances in research, understanding, and quantification of the damaging effects of mercury pollution since the EPA’s 2011 analysis was conducted, yet the agency’s proposed action still relies on this. In its draft letter, the SAB rightly introduces critically important research published since then and I urge you to reflect that best available science in your final recommendations.  

The SAB must also work to correct—not further muddy—the EPA proposal’s attack on long-standing legal, economic, and regulatory precedent on cost-benefit analysis. We strongly disagree with the EPA’s approach. It is wrong for this committee to move forward with its current recommendation to refer to PM2.5 as the “primary” benefit, methylmercury exposure as the “co-benefit,” and fail to comment on whether PM2.5 benefits should be included at all. The SAB must call for PM2.5 to be included as a benefit without distinction, and that all such benefits be directly considered in the EPA’s proposed action. The SAB should also advise the EPA to fully incorporate unquantified effects as opposed to its current arbitrary and inadequate approach.  

Further, the SAB should remove discussion of the idea of hormesis for particulate matter pollution in the report. There is a little legitimate scientific evidence of such effects in environmental pollutants, and none with regard to particulate matter. The EPA, with the input of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, just completed a review of the science on particulate matter and health via the National Ambient Air Quality Standards and neither agency scientists, nor the committee, nor a separate independent panel of experts, raised consideration of hormesis. If such a fringe scientific view is going to be raised in this committees recommendations, the SAB should in its final letter, specify whether this is a consensus opinion or one of a single or minority of its members, given its sharp divergence from mainstream scientific understanding. 

Just like MATS, EPA has neglected basic science in the SAFE rule, and we have more specific comments on that in our written comments both as the Union of Concerned Scientists and as part of a coalition of organizations. 

I urge the committee to adhere to the best available science in its recommendations to the EPA and insist that this committee be given the time, resources, and meeting frequency necessary to fulfill its duty of providing robust science advice to the EPA. Thank you.