Pruitt Announces 'Secret Science' Rule Blocking Use of Crucial Health Research

The regulation would prevent EPA's use of studies that promised subjects confidentiality, including pollution research. It mirrors a bill Congress refused to pass.

Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator under President Trump, visits a coal mine. Credit: Justin Merriman/Getty Images

The EPA has long relied on disease surveys that include confidentiality for subjects, including studies on the health impact of soot from burning fossil fuels. Credit: Justin Merriman/Getty Images

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new regulation on Tuesday to restrict the types of scientific evidence that can be used in writing EPA rules. Scientists and health organizations say the move could rule out the use of major health studies that support clean air and water regulations and that promised the participants confidentiality.

Scott Pruitt's proposal would only allow the EPA to use studies where the underlying data is made public. Internal documents show how the rule is the culmination of a years-long effort led by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Science Committee, and other industry-aligned politicians and political appointees.

Critics of the policy change say any claims that it's being done in the name of transparency are red herrings.

"In reality, these are phony issues that weaponize 'transparency' to facilitate political interference in science-based decision making, rather than genuinely address either," a group of nearly 1,000 scientists wrote in a letter to Pruitt on Monday. "The result will be policies and practices that will ignore significant risks to the health of every American."

The proposal will be published for public comment, which the EPA is to take into account in writing the final regulation. Once finalized, the rule may be subject to legal challenge, meaning the courts likely will have an opportunity to weigh in on Pruitt's plan.

The Natural Resources Defense Council responded that "NRDC will do all we can to stop this arbitrary proposal from ever being adopted."

The EPA has long relied on well-established population and disease surveys that aggregate data on large populations where patient identifications are kept confidential. The epidemiological studies have allowed regulators to understand how pollutants in the air and water impact humans and provide a scientific justification for regulations involving air and water pollution. Pruitt's new rule would strike at the core of those regulations. The studies have stood up to peer review, and researchers are typically granted access to redacted data or sign agreements to maintain confidentiality.

"Suggesting that the EPA has not been transparent is a fallacy," said Inês Azevedo, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. "When compared to other national environmental agencies, the amount of information EPA currently makes available to the public and for researchers is dramatically better and more detailed."

A Win for the Fossil Fuels Industry

Pruitt made the announcement with Smith and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) standing by his side. "The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end," Pruitt said.

These studies, which promise participants confidentiality, would be blocked by the new rule—a major boon to the fossil fuel industry, which has opposed prominent U.S. health studies that show fine soot pollution, largely from the burning of fossil fuels, shortened lives.

"This is a policy that will most likely be giving special treatment to industry and exclude critical public health data," said Yogin Kothari, a senior Washington representative with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It will prevent the EPA from using the entire suite of the best available data out there when it makes decisions using science."

The proposed regulation mirrors legislation long-championed by Smith. His bill, originally called the Secret Science Reform Act, passed the House of Representatives three times but has never been taken up by the Senate. After the repeat failure of the bill, which is now called the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, Smith's office—along with political appointees within the EPA—sought to have the EPA implement it through an internal policy change.

The Texas Senator Behind the Anti-Science Plan

Smith first approached Pruitt's office with the plan on Jan. 9, 2018, according to a trove of internal EPA emails obtained through a public information request and released last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"In three months of discussions, not once did they bring in career staff or the EPA science advisor," said Kothari, who reviewed the documents with colleagues. "It's really telling that they're trying to weaponize transparency here and prevent the agency from using independent science for some of the bedrock environ regulations on the books like the Clean Air Act."

After that meeting, the emails show that several EPA political appointees talked regularly about the policy change. There was no mention of concern about any potentially negative impacts to public health, Kothari said, but there is evidence that they worked to ensure that that policy would not have a negative impact on the industry. Those staffers included Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry trade association employee; Richard Yamada, a former staffer for Smith; and Brittney Bowen, a former staffer for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Kothari said the role that these political appointees played to influence the adoption of the policy shows that even if Pruitt were to resign as the steady drumbeat of ethics violations continues, the erosion of existing environmental regulations would persist. Andrew Wheeler, the EPA's new deputy administrator, just behind Pruitt, is a former coal lobbyist who also worked for Inhofe.

"They're like termites in a building. They're just trying to break it all down," said Kothari. "The next administrator will have a huge task ahead of them to rebuild the public's confidence in the EPA."

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