Dear Administrator Wheeler: This is What EPA Science Advice Looks Like

October 15, 2019 | 3:19 pm
Gretchen Goldman/UCS
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Last Thursday and Friday, a historic meeting took place. A 20-member panel of air pollution experts met in Washington DC, despite being disbanded by EPA leaders exactly one year before. The panel’s work of advising EPA’s upcoming decision on particulate matter air pollution standards is far from over, but the meeting was a significant step in ensuring independent science can continue to inform the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, even as agency leaders sabotage the process. Here’s a recap of takeaways from the meeting (You can watch the full recording here of day 1 and day 2).

1. The meeting was refreshingly ordinary.

In a windowless conference room at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia, I made opening comments at the meeting. After that, the meeting proceeded much as it would have if it had been an EPA meeting. To ensure an open, transparent and balanced process we chose to meet or exceed all federal advisory committee ethics and process requirements. Christopher Zarba is assisting us with those requirements, is serving as if he were a designated federal officer for this review, and issued a signed written and verbal statement stating so. For the rest of the two days, Panel Chair and North Carolina State Professor Dr. H. Christopher Frey led the group of scientists through a series of scientific questions aimed at probing the adequacy of EPA’s assessment of science and policy around particulate pollution standards, with each panelist bringing unique and high-level expertise to the process. This panel came prepared, having already reviewed EPA’s science assessment in December 2018.  Over the last month, members have been reviewing EPA’s Policy Assessment, and each provided their initial reviews and comments on aspects related to their areas of expertise.  At the meeting, they discussed the evidence, challenged assumptions, and debated ideas. The two days were fantastically scientific and comfortingly technical, given what we’ve seen from the EPA lately.

The meeting was a stark contrast to the way the EPA particulate standards review has been proceeding in the panel’s absence. With only the seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) left to provide science advice on the standards (a group that has themselves said they don’t have the adequate expertise to conduct the review) and a committee chair spending more time pushing an agenda than facilitating group discussion, the scientific discourse in the meetings has been lacking. Conversely, last week’s panel meeting had more than double the number of experts of EPA and more scientists from the fields most relevant for the review, like epidemiology and statistics.

2. The meeting made clear that EPA leaders broke the process.

While the panel was undeterred from having the necessary high-level scientific conversation required to conduct their review, the EPA’s dysfunction was the elephant in the room. The panel kept getting tripped up by the broken process that EPA is now conducting.

The abbreviated EPA timeline, with fewer drafts for review by science advisers and the public, has meant that the agency is now blurring the line between science and policy. In a normal process, the EPA would incorporate feedback from its science advisers and finalize the science assessment before the agency and CASAC would deliberate on the policy. But under Administrator Wheeler, science advisors only saw one draft of the science assessment and will be asked to deliberate on the policy at next week’s CASAC meeting.

It is in this context that the panel discussed the policy while acknowledging the atypical process. “The science review shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of a meeting timeline,” Dr Frey declared. “EPA is putting the cart before the horse,” added panel member Dr. Ronald Wyzga. One panelist noted that the fact that science advisors are asked to deliberate on policy without any revised or finalized science assessment is “frankly absurd.”

3. The panel has drawn a line in the sand

The most important takeaway from the meeting is that an independent panel of experts is now establishing a benchmark against which the EPA and its science advisors can be measured. The panel is now drafting a letter to send to the administrator summarizing their advice for the standards. We will see the panel’s finalized language in that letter in the coming weeks.  But, based on their assessment of the science at the meeting, the panel was unanimous in its agreement with the EPA draft Policy Assessment that the current particulate matter standards are inadequate to protect public health. Such a statement coming from an independent body of experts on the topic will send a strong signal to EPA and CASAC about where scientific opinion stands. And if the agency and CASAC deviate from recommendations in the panel’s final letter, we should expect them to explain why.

The meeting of the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel has injected independent science advice where it is sorely needed.

Stay tuned as they continue their deliberations on a public teleconference this Friday, 10 am to 2 pm EST, and finalize a letter to the EPA administrator.  You can join the public teleconference by calling 888-613-0404.