The First Cut (of EPA Advisory Committees) is the Deepest

October 24, 2019 | 4:54 pm
Tony Webster/Flickr
Genna Reed
Director of Policy Analysis

Today, EPA announced that as a result of the President’s short-sighted and misguided executive order issued by President Trump in June, it was cutting two committees: the Environmental Laboratory Advisory Board (ELAB) and the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT). Both of these committees have been utilized by the agency for decades, were meeting regularly (monthly for ELAB) under the Trump administration, and were so well-established that they even had logos. EPA recognized that these committees were valuable, but “in comparison with the other eligible FACs,” their work wasn’t valuable enough.

In normal times, EPA would not have to have its advisory committees working on a bunch of different issues go head to head to defend their value. Instead, it would terminate committees that are no longer seen as valuable, that have met their charge and completed all their work. That is not the case for either of these committees. The agency is cutting them for political reasons, because the President ordered them to do so. That is not how science advice, or any kind of advice, should be handled. Because of this order, there will be two fewer opportunities for experts to check the work of the agency and two fewer venues for interested parties and members of the public to plug into the government decisionmaking process.

ELAB helped EPA ensure data quality at labs across the country

ELAB was established in 1995 and helps advise the agency give states and local governments the tools they need to provide access to safe drinking water for all. The loss of this advisory committee represents yet another hit to science advice and the ability of EPA to protect our health, especially those communities of color and low-income communities who face a variety of environmental and economic challenges.

Ensuring data quality might sound vague, but it affects our daily lives! When you turn your tap on every day, you trust your water utility to have the best methods in place to keep harmful bacteria or trace levels of pharmaceuticals out of your drinking water. Likewise, you trust that the utility will monitor consistently for trace levels of compounds in case there is a spike of lead or chromium-6 that could hurt your family. Environmental labs are able to meet standards and ensure data quality because EPA provides it, and ELAB offered a feedback loop between labs and EPA to keep it up. Knowledge shared by labs across the country on how EPA’s methods are used helped to ensure that the agency continued to improve its processes so that our local authorities can keep us safe.

EPA has used the consensus-based recommendations of this advisory committee to inform improvements to its laboratories and best practices for ensuring quality assurance. Without this formal monthly gathering of experts, EPA will likely miss hearing critical feedback that could be used to better protect us. And as the agency deals with challenging demands, like creating methods to test for hundreds or thousands of chemicals in a class (i.e. PFAS), ELAB advisors won’t be on call to guide them on the needs of environmental labs to best keep drinking water safe. This science advisory committee served as a vital accountability mechanism for the agency and the gap will surely be felt.

NACEPT was a venue for community input on environmental issues

NACEPT is an invaluable tool for the EPA administrator to hear from a broad group of stakeholders (industry, academia, NGOs, local and state govt) on a range of environmental issues. Most recently, the committee worked to finalize reports on how the agency might meaningfully integrate citizen science into its work. This is critical work, because people living in communities most impacted by environmental degradation have long-standing expertise and deep knowledge of these issues, and EPA needs to institute more paths to listen and learn from them to advance environmental justice. Without NACEPT to follow up on its report, who will hold EPA to its commitment to incorporate these recommendations and offer feedback on its yet-to-be-released citizen science vision?

The committee was also charged with helping Alaska develop a product rating system so that more durable products with fewer waste streams could be prioritized to help meet the needs of Alaskan communities living and working in extreme climates. The committee set up workgroups to continue to understand how best to tackle the issue and were hoping to meet this fall. Now that project has been cut short.

Accessible information and transparency are at stake

While the agency claims it will find other ways to receive expert advice on topics of interest to these committees, there is no guarantee that will happen—and it will be especially difficult to do it in a forum that is open and accessible to the public, fully transparent, and features advisors who have been vetted for conflicts of interest. Let’s call these cuts what they are: part of a pattern of this administration removing science and opportunities for public input from the policymaking process.

ELAB and NACEPT have shown their value time and time again. They are only being cut because of the administration’s arbitrary executive order to reach a meaningless cap of 350 advisory committees. This administration has made it clear that it is removing independent external expertise and critical feedback from the equation so there are fewer checks on the government as it works to dismantle environmental and public health safeguards that have been in place for decades.

So far we’ve only heard about a handful of cut committees, but this executive order threatens to impact a broad range of issues from environmental health to homeland security, which is why 77 organizations have signed onto a letter to the White House asking for the order to rescinded. We will continue to track the damage done by this order and showcase the value that these committees have brought to the government and our lives.

About the author

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Genna Reed is the director of policy analysis in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she leads research on political and corporate influences on science-informed decision making—working to inform the public about issues where science is stifled or obscured, and to ensure that federal, state, and local policies are based on rigorous, independent science.