Lamar Smith and Selective Transparency: Why I’ll Be Livetweeting the EPA Scientific Integrity Stakeholder Meeting

May 23, 2017 | 1:20 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

For the past few years, the Environmental Protection Agency has held a meeting with outside groups to discuss its annual scientific integrity report. All kinds of organizations have attended in the past, from the American Chemistry Council (which represents chemical companies) to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which represents scientists) to the American Lung Association (which represents people who breathe). They’re all invited again to this year’s meeting on June 14.

The EPA-produced report describes the actions the agency has taken under the EPA scientific integrity policy over the previous year. The meeting is an opportunity for organizations to ask questions about the report, to give feedback to the agency, and to identify new or emerging challenges. It’s not a perfect process, and the agency gets criticism from all sides (including UCS). But it’s an impressive attempt to reach out to the agency’s stakeholders. To my knowledge, no other agency or department does this.

Transparency is important to holding government accountable. It just shouldn’t be selective.

Yesterday, House Science Committee Chairman Smith sent a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt expressing concern about this meeting. As rat smellers go, he doesn’t exactly have the best nose, but he smells a rat. Chairman Smith seems to be trying to drum up controversy about the meeting, as he explicitly objects to some of the invitees (including me), and is calling for the agency to make it open to the public.

I wholeheartedly agree. So on June 14th at 3:00pm, I’ll begin livetweeting the EPA scientific integrity meeting. You can follow along at @halpsci. It’s usually a fairly humdrum affair, so I can’t promise everything will be interesting (although these days, let’s face it, everything at the EPA has some fireworks). But I can promise it will be transparent, and I will make at least a couple of attempts to be funny.

Better yet, I’d encourage the agency to put it on Periscope, or livestream it on Facebook, so the Chairman and his staff and anyone with an Internet connection can hear every question posed about an agency under siege by an administrator who is hostile to the science that it creates and communicates. That is, if the EPA still has the budget to pay for enough Internet bandwidth by the time the meeting happens.

Real talk about transparency

Chairman Smith claims to care about transparency. So let’s talk about that. Here is the type of transparency we deserve:

I’d like to know whether anyone from the Obama administration or the oil and gas industry influenced language in the EPA’s press release and executive summary about the impact of fracking on drinking water. Unfortunately, our FOIAs to help answer that question came back heavily redacted.

I’d like to know who from the chemical industry met or communicated with the EPA in advance of Administrator Pruitt’s decision to reject scientific advice and keep a dangerous pesticide on the market that has been shown to hurt endangered species and harm human brain development. Perhaps any such meetings or phone calls, too, should have been open to the public. They should at least have transcripts and recordings. While we’re at it, maybe these meetings should include representatives from groups like the American Public Health Association. Maybe they should even include some independent scientists with expertise in the impact of the chemicals on developing brains!

I’ll be livetweeting the EPA’s scientific integrity stakeholder meeting on June 14 at 3pm. Follow me @halpsci.

I’d like many more EPA meetings to be made open to the public. Every time they meet with lobbyists from an industry trade group or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I want it broadcast, live. I want to see Snapchat stories about industry input. I’d like to know, for example, exactly what was discussed at two consecutive days of meetings in North Carolina between EPA officials and representatives from the American Petroleum Institute on April 19 and 20. It could be completely innocuous, but I want to know.

So where the deuce are the chairman’s letters for any of that? Selective transparency does not suggest good faith.

Of course Chairman Smith’s letter to Pruitt is absurd, even by the ever-downward-spiraling standards of the House Science Committee. It is a clear attempt to cast doubt on the work of the agency’s scientific integrity office and thereby weaken its credibility and investigative authority. This attempt should be roundly rejected.

I know Dr. Francesca Grifo, the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Official, quite well. And I know that she travels all around the country talking about scientific integrity with anyone who will listen. She has given scores of presentations about the agency’s scientific integrity policy. She meets with environmental groups. She meets with industry organizations. She will fully investigate scientific integrity complaints from anyone who files them.

So I’m looking forward to June 14th, and can’t wait to share all of the details. It could possibly be the most interesting meeting yet.