The EPA’s Move to Handcuff Scientists Will Sicken and Kill People

November 11, 2019 | 6:45 pm
Photo: USDA
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is doubling down on a proposal that would effectively force the agency to ignore thousands of scientific studies when responding to public health threats and setting pollution standards. It could also compromise scientific assessments produced by the EPA on a wide variety of topics, including on chemicals like ethylene oxide. The EPA can’t develop adequate public health protections without fully considering all the scientific evidence.

supplemental draft rule obtained by the New York Times shows that the agency is expanding a previous proposal to restrict the use of scientific studies where raw scientific data—including personal medical records—is not available to the public.  The additional “clarifications” in the supplement in effect mean that the EPA would ignore far more research than it originally proposed. And the agency administrator, as a political appointee, still gets to decide what information gets considered and what doesn’t.

The move rebuffs universal urging from scientists and public health organizations to withdraw the previous proposal, and would hog-tie EPA research staff, leading to weaker air and water protections that will make people sicker.

“This is a blatant removal of well-established science from the policymaking process, to the benefit of polluters and at a huge cost to the marginalized communities who face the biggest threat from pollution,” said Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the UCS Center for Science and Democracy. “There’s no scientific reason or public interest to restricting the science that EPA can consider in this way—it will just make the laws that protect public health and the environment nearly impossible to carry out.”

Once the rule is published, the public will have thirty days to provide comment on a narrow set of questions related to a proposal that would completely transform how the EPA makes decisions. No public hearings are scheduled, presumably because the last time they did a public hearing, scientists poked holes in every part of the proposal, essentially calling it some kind of sick joke.

The proposal comes directly from tobacco industry lobbyists, who previously, and unsuccessfully, tried to get Congress to pass similar legislation. The fatally flawed proposal is legally and scientifically indefensible. The EPA now seems poised to make it even worse.

Nearly two years after disgraced Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the proposal, the EPA is unable to identify what problem they are trying to solve. The agency is unable to provide any information about how this radical change to the use of science by the agency would affect public health. There is still no information on how much this unnecessary exercise would cost, nor who would pay for it. The EPA has no clear idea on their authority to do this.

Instead they are  trying to invent, unsuccessfully, both a rationale and a legal mandate. The agency has ignored advice from scores of scientific groups to withdraw the proposal, and rebuffed offers from the National Academy of Sciences to help them improve the evaluation of evidence in policymaking.

That’s because this proposal has nothing to do with science. They want politicians, not scientists, to evaluate the evidence of harm to the public. Administrator Wheeler wants to increase political control over the science-based processes that have been effective at cleaning up our air and water and improving public health for decades.

This entire exercise is designed to exclude certain types of public health studies that demonstrate that pollution makes people sick.

Such a sweeping proposal should not move forward without full review by the National Academy of Sciences and the EPA Science Advisory Board. Both have pleaded to have that opportunity. Yet the new supplemental noticed disregards hundreds of thousands of public comments urging the EPA administrator to withdraw the proposal and detailing the many types of research that would be excluded from consideration if it were to move forward.

Administrator Wheeler and other EPA leaders built their careers working directly for polluters that want to neuter the EPA by blowing up its scientific processes. It’s not likely they are going to start listening anytime soon. It would be easier for the EPA to relax pollution controls by pretending they don’t know that pollution hurts people.

Over the next couple of days, we will delve more deeply into the proposal. But what’s important to know now is that with these handcuffs on, the EPA would fail to identify and assess new public health threats.

In a Wednesday hearing, the House Science Committee will hear testimony from the EPA and public health experts on the rule. I will be there and hope to hear a lot of questions about how the agency would be forced to stand by and do nothing when the science shows that Americans are getting sick.