The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has one job: to protect public health and safety and the environment we live in, based on the best available science. It’s a mission that saves lives if it’s carried out correctly. But that mission could become a dead letter if EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler succeeds in restricting the science that the agency can use.
Wheeler is pushing a new proposed rule—cloaked in the rhetoric of “transparency”—that would disallow the use of any study in the EPA’s policy making if all of that study’s data, computer code and models aren’t made public. What that means in practice (although the EPA disputes it) is that the agency couldn’t even consider public health studies that are based on confidential private medical information, which are vital for understanding public health and the impacts of pollution. The rule would put new bureaucratic hurdles in the way of the agency’s mission, making laws such as the Clean Air Act harder to fully implement. It sounds like a small technical change, but it has the potential to do enormous damage.
This week, a new supplemental draft rule was leaked to the public. In theory, this supplement is supposed to “clarify” the initial rule after its rollout last year was met with widespread condemnation from public health experts, environmental justice groups and the science community. What it clarifies is that Wheeler seems to be abandoning the concept of science-based protections entirely. This proposal, if it’s implemented, could effectively nullify laws that have worked for decades to deliver cleaner air, cleaner water and healthier communities.
So what does the rule do in its new “clarified” form?
It applies to almost all the science used by the agency. In its initial form, the science-restriction rule applied to “dose-response” studies used to quantify the impacts of a pollutant or chemical on human health. But the new draft makes it clear that any research that the EPA uses would be subject to the same constraint, whether it’s a survey, environmental assessment, modeling study or anything else that could help inform policy making.
The gold-standard studies of health impacts, based on personal medical data that should be kept private, would be excluded. Industry could pick and choose what research it allows the agency to see and keep anything else under wraps. And the restriction doesn’t just apply to future research and rulemaking—it could be applied retroactively to long published studies, as regulations are updated, no matter how well-established and well-supported the underlying research is (the EPA disputes this as well.)
It requires endless, pointless reanalysis. There are already guidelines in place at the EPA to review the quality and strength of scientific research, above and beyond the rounds of peer review that are standard in science. But the new proposed rule would turn this reasonable review process into an open-ended, time-consuming cycle of reanalysis. Effectively, the new definition requires the agency to check the math of every study to make sure it gets the same answer. And the rule requires an overly broad set of sensitivity studies on all parameters.
That is enormously time-consuming and impractical. And such delays are not ethical for public health studies, where the impacts on individuals can be severe. This is a solution in search of a problem: the EPA political appointees who designed this rule haven’t bothered to point out or documented what problem they are trying to solve with such procedures.
It upends the value placed on studies. There are good ways to evaluate a scientific research project: How well is it designed? Are the assumptions reasonable? Are the sample sizes big enough? Is the evidence strong enough to point to a conclusion, and how does that conclusion compare with other studies in the field? The new proposal invents an arbitrary new bureaucratic standard by which a study is judged, unrelated to robustness or merit. The actual weight the evidence would receive is, according to this new proposal, based on the public availability of raw data.
It’s based on a vague, dodgy premise. For an agency to implement a new regulation—and for it to survive a legal challenge—there must be a clear authority for the action given to the agency by law. Agency leaders need to be able to explain why they’re making the change. In its initial proposal, the EPA didn’t make a case that it had the legal authority to arbitrarily restrict what science the agency can consider. So the argument offered for this enormous change to EPA practices in the supplemental rule is the Federal Housekeeping Statute of 1966—a legal justification that amounts to “because I said so.”
It’s a political change made to achieve political goals. EPA political leaders are insisting this new rule is based on a need for transparency and good science. But every step of the process has made a mockery of those claims. This rule was designed by political staff, based on proposals long pushed by lobbyists for the tobacco industry and fossil-fuel extractors. The EPA’s own scientific experts were secondary to the process, and the EPA’s Science Advisory Board was given very little opportunity to review it.
The agency’s leaders got more than half a million comments on the proposal—most of them highly critical, including opposition from major scientific societies, public health groups and research universities. But as the supplemental draft shows, those comments were largely ignored. The proposal is being put out with a short and highly restricted public-comment period. And under the rule, the EPA administrator has the power to pick and choose when the rule does or doesn’t apply—the exact opposite of a transparent process. Even a big proponent of the rule told the New York Times that it is meant to exclude specific studies and make it harder to put new safeguards in place.
Let’s be clear about what this proposal is: a set of handcuffs on the agency, with industry-linked political appointees holding the key. It will make it harder for the EPA to carry out its mission, to protect communities or to hold polluters accountable. This is a declaration by Wheeler and his deputies that they’re not interested in protecting public health