Who Not to Pick for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board

September 26, 2017 | 3:27 pm
A. Eyring
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

In its effort to fill fifteen positions on the Science Advisory Board, the EPA has posted a list of 132 nominees to be a part of the esteemed EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB). The SAB is a group of over forty scientists, experts in a range of disciplines, who provide peer review and expert advice on EPA issue areas.

While many of the nominees are highly qualified and distinguished in their fields, there are a handful of individuals that are extremely concerning due to their direct financial conflicts, their lack of experience and/or their historical opposition to the work of the EPA in advancing its mission to protect public health and the environment.

The SAB was established by the Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act of 1978 and operates as a federal advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972. Note that board members should be experts in their fields, with the training and experience to evaluate EPA-relevant scientific and technical matters. Source: U.S. GPO

Many of these concerning individuals were nominated by Heartland Institute—an organization that has actively worked to sow doubt about climate change science—and have the seal of approval by Trump EPA transition team member and Heartland staffer, Steve Milloy. When interviewed about some of the names on the nominee list, Milloy said that he is glad that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is in office since he’ll be brave enough to reconstitute the SAB. A “thumbs up” from Milloy is an immediate red flag for me.

My colleague, Andrew Rosenberg, categorized questionable political appointees in three distinct buckets: the conflicted, the opposed, and the unqualified. The same can be said of nominees for the SAB. You don’t have to dig too deep to find individuals who may appear to be qualified on paper, but have a track record of undermining the work of the EPA and advancing policies that benefit special interests over the general public. Appointing these individuals to the SAB would be in direct opposition to the critical work of the SAB itself and to the EPA’s mission.

Take Dr. Michael Honeycutt, lead toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, for example. Industry representatives, including at the American Chemistry Council, ExxonMobil, and the Texas Oil and Gas Association launched a campaign to get Honeycutt appointed to the CASAC in 2016, which fortunately was unsuccessful. Now Honeycutt’s name is on the list for the SAB.

He co-authored an article in 2015 that argued that available science did not support the EPA’s assertion that tighter ozone standards would provide significant public health benefits. In criticizing the scientific studies used by the EPA, Honeycutt has cherrypicked studies to exaggerate uncertainty on risks of ozone pollution, including making hay of the argument that ozone pollution isn’t a huge issue because “most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors,” which has been picked up and spouted off by climate deniers, like Michael Fumento.

Honeycutt has also served on the steering committee of the Alliance for Risk Assessment (ARA), along with President Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Michael Dourson. The ARA was created by the TERA, an organization founded by Dourson that does research for industry and maintains a database of risk assessments.

According to its website, about a third of TERA’s funding comes from the private sector, including the American Chemistry Council and Coca-Cola. Rena Steinzor, professor at the University of Maryland School of Law has accused TERA of “whitewashing the work of industry.” The TCEQ has awarded TERA at least $700,000 in contracts between 2010 and 2014.  As a steering committee member, Honeycutt oversaw ARA scientific reviews of TCEQ work. While Honeycutt claims that he recused himself from those projects, the quagmire of ties between TCEQ, ARA, and TERA are hard to dispute, especially when you consider that during those same years, the TCEQ loosened two-thirds of the already-weak protections for the 45 chemicals it chose to reassess between 2007 and 2014. In 2013, The TCEQ paid $1.6 million to another industry-friendly consulting firm, Gradient, to review EPA’s science on ozone.

Honeycutt has spent his career at TCEQ politicizing the EPA and actively working to obstruct science used to inform important standards at the agency, so it seems out of character for him to want so badly to be a member of an EPA science advisory committee. Unless, of course, he is interested in the platform or the ability to provide formal advice to his personal friend, Michael Dourson.

What does Honeycutt have in common with fellow nominee, Dr. John Graham? Under Graham’s leadership in January 2006, The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a proposed Risk Assessment Bulletin which would have covered any scientific or technical document assessing human health or environmental risks.

OMB asked the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council (NRC) to conduct an independent review of the document. Its study gave the OMB a failing grade, calling the guidance a “fundamentally flawed” document which, if implemented, would have a high potential for negative impacts on the practice of risk assessment in the federal government. Among the reasons for their conclusions was that the bulletin oversimplified the degree of uncertainty that agencies must factor into all of their evaluations of risk. This idea for standardized risk assessment is of interest to regulatory reform advocates like Graham and has made its way into the dangerous Regulatory Accountability Act in Congress and into the new toxic substances rules under the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act that Graham’s protégé and former ACC staffer, Nancy Beck, is now crafting from her position as Deputy Assistant Administrator of the EPA.

Before his stint at OMB, Graham led the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which notably skewed risk analyses in favor of industry: costs saved by not regulating versus lives saved regulating. In one case, Graham’s OMB rejected a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration rule that would reduce the toll of vehicle rollovers by requiring that automakers install tire pressure warning systems. Graham made this decision despite the direct conflict of interest as his Harvard think tank was funded by General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Volvo Car Corp. and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Another individual that the SAB should steer clear of is Dr. Richard Belzer, an agricultural economist and, like Graham, is a cost-benefit-analysis enthusiast who worked for the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) from 1988 to 1998. In 2000, Belzer criticized SAB’s role in peer reviewing the EPA’s evaluation of costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act. Belzer and his co-author called SAB’s reviews “ineffective” because, in their opinion, they couldn’t force the agency to change the direction of policy.

Belzer appears to misunderstand the purpose of the SAB which is to simply advise the agency on its science. The EPA has the discretion to heed that advice and apply it to policies. SAB members are not decision-makers, they are esteemed scientists whose expertise is best suited to evaluate scientific considerations, not political ones. In 2010, Belzer participated in a panel on “The EPA’s Ambitious Regulatory Agenda” sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, the description of which includes the erroneous statement: “all major EPA decisions are contentious.” According to his bio, his clients include ExxonMobil and American Chemistry Council. And speaking of American Chemistry Council…

Kimberly White, senior director of chemical products and technology at the ACC is among those nominated to serve on the SAB. She has been summoned by House Science Committee Majority Staff, Lamar Smith, to testify at the hearing called “Making EPA Great Again” earlier this year where she spoke about the need to improve the SAB’s transparency and peer review methods and accused the EPA of being too involved in the SAB’s peer review process: “conversations that are happening in that peer review get stymied by [the] EPA’s input during the peer-review process so it’s not as independent as it should be.”

She also agreed when one member of congress suggested that the SAB was not truly balanced and that there should be a devil’s advocate on the committee. Perhaps Dr. White wants to fill that very role. The problem with that, however, is that the American Chemistry Council and her previous employer, the American Petroleum Institute, are organizations that actively work to spread disinformation about a range of scientific topics to thwart the EPA’s work to keep us safe. Dr. White has criticized an EPA assessment on formaldehyde, for example, because it wasn’t inclusive enough of science. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and thanks in large part to ACC, the EPA’s emissions standard for wood products set to be enforced in December has been delayed at least four months.

Who Pruitt appoints for the fifteen open positions will be a test to see whether he is going to continue seeking exclusive counsel from polluters. There are a handful of qualified scientists who have only served one term that can be easily reappointed for a second, which is common practice for the board. For the sake of continuity, it would behoove Pruitt to keep those experts on. For the other positions, it would be in the agency’s best interest for Pruitt to choose a balanced roster of new members from the dozens of well-qualified scientists on the list, rather than stack the committee with folks who have spent their careers working to undermine the mission of the EPA and weaken policies that are supposed to keep us safe.

All members of the public can submit comments encouraging the EPA to appoint independent and qualified scientists as advisors. You have until Thursday, September 28th at 11:59pm to email your comment to Thomas Carpenter, the Designated Federal Officer of the SAB, at [email protected].