WASHINGTON -- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a rule Tuesday that would establish new standards for what science could be used in writing agency regulations, according to individuals briefed on the plan.
The rule would only allow EPA to consider studies for which the underlying data are made available publicly. Advocates describe this approach as an advance for transparency, but critics say it would effectively block the agency from relying on long-standing, landmark studies linking air pollution and pesticide exposure to harmful health effects.
"Today is a red-letter day. It's a banner day," Pruitt told a group of supporters at agency headquarters. "The science that we use is going to be transparent. It's going to be reproducible."
The move reflects a broader effort already underway to change how the agency conducts and uses science to guide its work. Pruitt has already changed the standards for who can serve on EPA's advisory committees, barring scientists who received EPA grants for their research while still allowing those funded by industry.
The rule will be subject to a 30-day comment period, EPA officials said. Pruitt, who had described the change during interviews with select media over the past month, said it will "enhance confidence in our decision-making" and prove "durable" because it will be issued as a regulation.
"This is not a policy," he said. "This is not a memo."
Many scientists argue that applying a standard to public health and environmental studies that is not currently required by peer-reviewed journals would limit the information the EPA could take into account.
Some researchers collect personal data from subjects but pledge to keep it confidential -- as was the case in a major 1993 study by Harvard University that established the link between fine-particle air pollution and premature deaths, as well as more recent research that tapped a Medicare database available to any scientific group guaranteeing confidentiality of the personal information. That practice would not be allowed under the new rule.
In an interview Tuesday, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said that requiring the kind of disclosure Pruitt envisions would have disqualified the federal government from tapping groundbreaking research, such as studies linking exposure to lead gasoline to neurological damage.
"The best studies follow individuals over time, so that you can control all the factors except for the ones you're measuring," said McCarthy, who now directs the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard's public health school. "But it means following people's personal history, their medical history. And nobody would want somebody to expose all of their private information."
House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, sought to establish a requirement similar to the one Pruitt has proposed, but his legislation, titled the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, failed to pass both chambers.
Pruitt and Smith met at EPA headquarters Jan. 9, according to Pruitt's public calendar, and an email obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicates that the lawmaker pressed the administrator to adopt the legislation's goal as his own.
Smith made "his pitch that EPA internally implement the HONEST Act [so that] no regulation can go into effect unless the scientific data is publicly available for review," Aaron Ringel, deputy associate administrator for congressional affairs at the EPA, wrote other agency staff. His email was obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientific advocacy organization.
Conservatives, such as EPA presidential transition team member Steve Milloy, have long tried to discredit independent research the agency used to justify limiting air pollution from burning coal and other fossil fuels. A series of studies has shown that fine particulate matter, often referred to as soot, enters the lungs and bloodstream and can cause illnesses such as asthma as well as premature death.
During President Barack Obama's administration, "the EPA wantonly destroyed 94 percent of the market value of the coal industry, killed thousands of coal mining jobs and wreaked havoc on coal mining families and communities," Milloy said in a statement, "all based on data the EPA and its taxpayer-funded university researchers have been hiding from the public and Congress for more than 20 years."
While the administration presses ahead, legal experts warn that the rule may be vulnerable to a court challenge. In unanimous decisions in 2002 and 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the EPA is not legally obligated to obtain and publicize the data underlying the research it considers in crafting regulations.
In the 2002 case, brought by the American Trucking Associations Inc., two judges appointed by Ronald Reagan and one named by Bill Clinton wrote that they agreed with the agency that such a requirement "would be impractical and unnecessary."
A range of scientific organizations are already campaigning to block the rule from being finalized. On Monday, 985 scientists signed a letter organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, urging Pruitt not to forge ahead with the policy change.
"There are ways to improve transparency in the decision-making process, but restricting the use of science would improve neither transparency nor the quality of EPA decision-making," they wrote. "If fully implemented, this proposal would greatly weaken EPA's ability to comprehensively consider the scientific evidence across the full array of health studies."
Information for this article was contributed by Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post.
A Section on 04/25/2018
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