While Pandemic Unfolds, EPA is Attempting to Sideline Science with Exclusionary New Policies

April 13, 2020 | 4:42 pm
U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Whitney Stanfield/Released
Ken Kimmell
Former President

If COVID-19 can teach us anything, it is this: having the best science, data and analysis available to and used by government decisionmakers is not only important—it can be a matter of life and death.

Unfortunately, the United States EPA apparently has not learned this lesson. As I write, EPA is pushing through a proposal that would limit the agency’s ability to rely upon the best available science when conducting its work. As my colleague Dr. Gretchen Goldman explains here, this “restricted science” proposed rule disallows EPA from considering, or authorizes it to arbitrarily give little weight to, scientific studies for which the underlying raw data cannot be made public.

If this rule were in effect, it would bar EPA from relying upon, for example, research that links air pollution to numerous illnesses, because many public health studies use medical records of thousands of people that are protected by law from disclosure. The scientific community has overwhelmingly opposed this proposed rule, objecting that is both harmful and unnecessary. Its few supporters are primarily individuals aligned with the fossil fuel and tobacco industries who have ideological axes to grind against government regulation, and want to cripple that endeavor.

EPA is compounding the deep substantive flaws by attempting to ram it through, at a time when the country at large, and many of our best scientists, are rightfully focused on COVID.  On March 18, at the height of concern over COVID, the EPA released the proposal, holding only a thirty-day public comment period (which it extended to sixty days), with no opportunity for the public to speak to the proposal at a public hearing (virtually or otherwise). While the new proposal is a second version of an earlier proposal that did receive copious public comment (UCS supporters alone generated many thousands of comments), it is significantly broader and arguably more destructive, and therefore merits a thorough public review of its own.

Unfortunately, this forging ahead on a radical agenda at a time of national crisis appears to be part of a trend. Last week, the EPA finalized a new rule to rollback fuel economy rules for cars and light duty trucks, which has no rationale other than transferring wealth from consumers (who will pay on a net basis more to operate their cars) to oil companies. EPA also has given polluters an extraordinary “hall pass” to “self-regulate” their pollution. And the Trump administration has fired the inspector general who took seriously the whistleblower complaint which brought to light the President’s call to Ukraine’s president and which resulted in his impeachment.

In all of these actions, the Trump administration seems to be counting on using the fog of COVID to advance an unpopular agenda that would be questioned and opposed were it subject to the disinfectant of sunlight.

We can’t let that happen. But what can we do?  Stay focused and speak up.

Tomorrow, the Union of Concerned Scientists is convening a nationwide virtual public hearing on the EPA science rule. The hearing will give anyone who wishes to speak the opportunity to do so, and UCS will submit a transcript to the administrative record before the EPA, which will require EPA to review and respond to substantive arguments that speakers make. And if EPA ignores the comments, they will be an official part of the record and can be used if UCS and other groups file suit to challenge the proposal once it is finalized.

You can still register to provide public comment for the morning and evening sessions. If you would prefer to provide written comments before May 18, UCS has developed a guide to assist you in doing so effectively.

It is certainly unorthodox for UCS to convene a public hearing that EPA should be holding itself. But lately that is what UCS has been doing—bringing good science to the federal government whether it wants it or not. Last fall, for example, we brought together a group of scientists who were fired by EPA to do the job that EPA had initially appointed them to do—inform EPA on the proper public health standard for particulate matter pollution.

Tomorrow, we will employ the same “do it yourself science” approach to this restricted science rule.  This public hearing will not only offer a platform for robust commentary on this proposed rule; it will serve as a model for how to strengthen our democracy, at a time when it is deeply needs re-invigorating.