By Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists
I spent most of Thursday and Friday this week at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board meeting in Washington, DC, as the 44 members gathered to discuss EPA’s regulatory agenda and hear updates from EPA programs on lead, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). As I explained earlier this week, it was the first meeting for 18 of the members who had been appointed after Administrator Pruitt issued his directive barring EPA-funded scientists from serving on the committee. Much of the meeting turned out to be an exercise in reaching consensus in a group of over 40 people on a select few decisions (you can follow my twitter thread for more detail here), but there were some important things that came out of the two half-days.
Overwhelming public support for more review of scientific underpinning of EPA regulations
During the public comment period section, 21 speakersprovided comments on the EPA SAB workgroup’s memos on the EPA’s regulatory agenda. Public comment periods at these meetings don’t usually last a full hour, but scientists and experts in person and on the phone clearly wanted to express their support for the EPA SAB’s review of several rulemakings in process that would effectively roll back science-based regulations on vehicle and power plant emissions. Many of the oral comments echoed the same concerns that the SAB workgroup raised in its assessment of glider vehicles, namely that EPA had not undertaken an assessment of the emissions impacts from this rule and should, and that the technical information relied upon in the proposal was both at odds with EPA’s own tests and had now been withdrawn by the body conducting the research. Additionally, and notably, nine of the oral commenters (including myself) from different fields were in strong support of SAB review of the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” proposed rule.
Consensus from SAB on general lack of analysis supporting EPA’s regulatory decisions
After the comments finished up, the SAB moved on to discuss the recommendations of the workgroup (here and here) and to come to a consensus on the advice that would be contained in a letter to the administrator coming out of this meeting. At first, some of the newer members advocated that the SAB postpone review of several of the regulatory actions that had been flagged as meriting review by the workgroup until more information was provided by the EPA. In fact, SAB member, Dr. Christopher Frey told Politico on Thursday that, “Basically they just didn’t provide us with any answers,” said Frey. “That kind of put us in a position where all we can really do is say EPA has not identified the science or any plan to review it, and clearly there are science issues that are in the proposed rule.” Luckily, after much conversation, there was an acknowledgement, even from the newest members, that it is better to agree to review and find out later that the scope of the review can be narrowed than to simply kick the can down the road and hope for better information from EPA. Thus, the full SAB was able to vote in favor of recommending to Administrator Pruitt that they review all five deregulatory actions identified by the workgroup as requiring scientific review.
Agreement that Pruitt’s restricted science proposal warrants review
Then the committee moved onto the question of whether to review the EPA’s April proposed rulemaking on transparency in regulatory science. From the outset, all members seemed to agree with the workgroup’s recommendation that it merited review. Dr. Honeycutt even justified the need for SAB review because of the sheer number of questions (27) that the EPA posed in such a short proposed rule. Stanley Young was the only member to show support for the rule, arguing that “mischief has been done” in the past with “studies hiding behind data,” calling out the Six Cities study as an example. This is a common talking point used by Administrator Pruitt and others when talking about so-called transparency, however it’s easily countered by showing that after all of the controversy around the study, once the data was reanalyzed by the Health Effects Institute, its findings were confirmed. The majority of members, however, were supportive of SAB review of this policy and ultimately voted unanimously in favor of recommending that Pruitt charge them with that duty.
Calls for delay of SAB review come from Pruitt-appointed members
The perhaps more contentious piece of this conversation happened on Friday when the SAB had time to consider exactly what they would be asking of the Administrator Pruitt regarding this rule. The question became: would they just ask to review the rule or would they also request that the agency defer all action on the rule (moving any further in the rulemaking process) before SAB’s review was complete. Interestingly, only new members disagreed with asking for agency deferral and Dr. Kimberly White of the American Chemistry Council commented that she thought SAB review shouldn’t begin until the rule is in final rule stage. It’s important to note that the American Chemistry Council has lobbied on similar legislation in Congress (the HONEST Act). Not only is it supportive of the rule, but its member companies stand to gain financially from such a rule that would limit the agency’s ability to use independent science to implement strong standards on chemicals that are environmental contaminants. Thus, Dr. White’s interest in delaying SAB review until it’s too late is right in line with her employer’s agenda in getting this rule finalized and implemented as soon as possible.
Another reason for delaying SAB review of regulatory actions is to wait until the makeup of the committee changes again this fall. Some 15 committee members’ terms will end at the end of September 2018 and while 8 of them have only served one term and could be reappointed, it is likely that Pruitt will not do that and appoint all new members. The final 11 members who were appointed under the Obama administration have terms expiring in September 2019, 8 of whom have only served one term. By the end of 2019, it is possible that Pruitt could have a hand-selected SAB and so far, Pruitt appointees appear more interested in delaying SAB review and allowing EPA actions to get farther into the rulemaking process before SAB weighs in. But, the SAB’s role is to be involved in EPA’s deliberative process and providing advice early enough in the rulemaking process that it can actually have an influence on the science considered by the agency. Advice received after a rule is already finalized is useless.
The ball will soon be in Pruitt’s court
At the very end of the meeting, the SAB agreed that Dr. Honeycutt and the Designated Federal Officer would draft a letter to Administrator Pruitt that would be sent to members for comment. This letter will then be sent to the Administrator’s office and once there, there are no requirements for him to respond in any window of time and no mandates that he follow the SAB’s advice. He could agree with the SAB and charge them with reviewing EPA actions within a matter of months, he could do the same thing but have them do it over the course of the year (at which time several of the rules under review might already be finalized), he could disagree with their recommendations and give them no charge or a different charge altogether, or he could ignore them completely. It’s hard to foresee what he will do because while he seems uninterested in scientific backing for his deregulatory agenda and never responded to the SAB letter sent in September 2017, he took quite an interest in EPA’s federal advisory committees when he issued a directive that changed the composition of many of them in October.
It would be in the public’s best interest for the SAB to have the opportunity to review these EPA regulatory actions so that there is at least some public record of scientific input and peer review feeding into the rulemaking process that has been entirely lacking at the EPA under the Trump administration. Administrator Pruitt should listen to his advisors on these issues, charging them with immediate review of these potentially destructive policies. Otherwise, the message he’ll be sending is that he can’t handle the truth: best available science will not support his deregulatory agenda.