EPA’s scientific advisers warn its regulatory rollbacks clash with established science
By Juliet Eilperin
Dec 31 2019
The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing ahead with sweeping changes to roll back environmental regulations despite sharp criticism from a panel of scientific advisers, most of whom were appointed by President Trump.
The changes would weaken standards that govern waterways and wetlands across the country, as well as those that dictate gas mileage for U.S. automobiles. Another change would restrict the kinds of scientific studies that can be used when writing new environmental regulations, while a fourth would change how the EPA calculates the benefits of limiting air pollutants from coal-fired power plants.
Three of the four draft reports, posted online Tuesday, suggest that the administration’s proposals conflict with established science. They were prepared by members of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, a panel of experts created by Congress in 1978 to review the agency’s scientific methods.
“It really calls into question to what degree these suggested changes are fact-based as opposed to politically motivated,” said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who served on the advisory board for two terms before stepping down on Sept. 30.
It is noteworthy that an advisory board dominated by scientists appointed by Trump — some of whom advocate looser federal rules — found serious flaws in the science behind several of the proposed changes, Hamburg said in an interview.
In an email, EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer said the agency “always appreciates and respects the work and advice” of the advisory board but added that its reviews “may potentially be revised” before they are finalized.
At issue are some of the EPA’s most significant efforts to weaken federal limits on water and air pollution. At least two of the rules — governing mercury pollution from power plants and what sort of chemicals can be used near waterways — are set to be finalized in January. Another rule, which would relax fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, is expected to be finalized by March.
The independent assessments raise questions about the basis for the administration’s push to unspool regulations enacted under President Barack Obama.
For example, regarding the EPA’s plan to reverse a rule that limits what sort of dredging or pesticide applications can take place near smaller streams and wetlands, the advisory board said the proposal “neglects established science” that shows how contamination of groundwater, wetlands and waterways can spread to drinking water supplies. A separate report says the economic models used to justify reducing the average mileage targets for cars and light trucks between now and 2026 were “implausible” based on assumptions about the kinds of vehicles consumers will drive in the future.
Schiermeyer said several of the proposed changes, such as the water pollution rule, reflect limits imposed by the Supreme Court as well as Congress.
“As a result, the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ may be informed by science, but science cannot dictate where to draw the line between federal and state or tribal waters,” she said, adding the new air pollution rule also reflected a ruling by the Supreme Court.
Relaxing mileage standards would make new vehicles more affordable, Schiermeyer said, while the proposal affecting research studies would require “the science to withstand skepticism and peer review.”
The moves come as the agency has overhauled how it factors science into its decision-making.
More than a year ago, the EPA disbanded an expert panel charged with updating assessments of the public health risks posed by soot. In December, the EPA’s inspector general concluded it failed to analyze how a plan to loosen emissions standards for truck components would affect children’s health. And it is now drafting a rule to restrict which scientific studies it uses to develop public health policies.
While previous administrations have occasionally pushed back at findings from scientific advisers, or ignored them altogether, friction between the group and the EPA has escalated under Trump — even though nearly two-thirds of its 44 members were appointed by him.
In 2019, the board met less frequently than at any time in the past two decades, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The number of industry experts on it has tripled since the president took office, while the portion of academics has been cut nearly in half.
H. Christopher Frey, an environmental engineer who served on the board from 2012 to 2018, said that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has effectively marginalized the group.
“In effect, he’s said, ‘No, I’m not interested in your advice,’ ” said Frey, also a professor at North Carolina State University. “He’s just sidelining the Scientific Advisory Board. He obviously has an ideological agenda of pursuing regulatory rollbacks, and the science is not always going to be consistent with that ideological agenda.”
In a recent interview, Wheeler said that he was open to input from the board, but it needed to move faster. “It certainly is a discussion we’re having with the SAB, the SAB leadership,” he said, referring to the group’s acronym. “We want to make sure that their reviews are timely.”
But members of the advisory board say it is agency leaders who have been slowing down their work. Advisory board members first raised the prospect of reviewing several of the EPA’s proposed rollbacks in June 2018. But the group waits for feedback from EPA staff before conducting reviews, and Wheeler did not respond to its inquiries until nearly 10 months later.
Hamburg said the EPA has intentionally tried to hamper the board’s work.