The Environmental Protection Agency has a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) that has the ability to review actions taken by the agency and provide feedback on whether they’re based on a solid scientific and technical foundation. Early in the Trump administration, many scientists appointed to the board during the Obama administration were not reappointed, and many were replaced by scientists and engineers working on industry. This raised fears that the SAB would go along quietly with the current administration’s focus on pro-industry deregulation.
Those worries appear to have been misplaced. In preparation for a public meeting of the board scheduled for later this month, the SAB has released draft evaluations of a number of the EPA’s signature policies under Trump, including new vehicle mileage standards and a scientific openness rule. And the results are scathing. Policy decisions are described as uselessly vague, having minimal scientific foundation and producing nonsensical results.
Policy minus science
The Trump administration came to office promising to eliminate government regulations where possible. This initiative has included a campaign to block limits on greenhouse gas emissions, which included a reduction in fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. But there have been lower-profile changes, like limiting planned standards on mercury emissions and water pollution. And there has been an effort to limit how much science is incorporated into future EPA decisions.
The SAB is tackling all of these in its draft comments, and in almost every case, it finds the science used by the EPA to either be questionable or missing entirely.
An effort to roll back planned controls on mercury emissions from power plants is the simplest example. “EPA’s residual risk assessment appears only to include [mercury in] fish consumed from small to mid-size lakes by fishermen and their families,” which the SAB notes represents a small fraction of the fish consumed in the US. On other aspects of mercury exposure, the SAB found that the Food and Drug Administration had obtained more recent data and performed up-to-date analyses, but these weren’t incorporated into the EPA’s analysis. The report also found that earlier suggestions by the SAB had been ignored in the final EPA analysis.
That may sound bad, but things get worse. The Clean Water Act gives the EPA power to regulate pollution in the US’ waterways and requires it to use the best available science to set the rules. During the Obama administration, following this dictate, the EPA recognized that the waterways it regulates are part of a system that includes groundwater, seasonal streams, and man-made bodies of water. It planned rules that would limit the pollution allowed into regulated waterways via these routes, which would greatly expand the entities subject to regulation.
The Trump administration is seeking to eliminate this proposed rule, and the SAB is not impressed. “The SAB discussed the scientific and technical underpinnings of the proposed [Waters of the US] rule and concluded that aspects of the proposed rule are in conflict with established science, the existing [Waters of the US] rule developed based on the established science, and the objectives of the Clean Water Act,” the draft document says. The board says that the best available science supports the Obama-era decision to treat waterways as a coherent, interconnected whole—the perspective that the Trump administration is eliminating. “The proposed Rule offers no comparable body of peer reviewed evidence to support such a departure, and no scientific justification for abandoning the more expansive view of connectivity of waters accepted by current hydrological science,” the SAB concludes.
To give a specific example, the SAB says that irrigation canals are a major source of water contamination and have been the source of E. coli outbreaks spread through vegetables.
The draft letter indicates that the SAB offered to place the rule on sounder scientific footing, but the EPA declined, deciding instead to focus on legal decisions that could be interpreted as calling for a more limited legal scope for regulation. The SAB notes that this justification seems to change with the politics of the current administration and is inconsistent with the requirement to use the best science.
Math problems and defining science
Next up, the SAB tackles proposed plans to reduce future automobile fuel efficiency standards. These were based on new models of car ownership that were incorporated into an existing analysis package. And those were, in part, not based on reality. The report indicates that these models have “weaknesses” in their theoretical underpinnings and actual economic analysis, leading to the nonsensical result that lowering efficiency standards will ensure lower-priced vehicles, which will somehow cause the car market to shrink. The EPA says that will lower the impact of the reduced efficiency.
Finally, the board turns to the EPA’s recent decision to alter which scientific results it considers when developing new rules. The Trump administration is claiming that it’s interested in increasing the openness of the science used in developing regulation by ensuring that the research is publicly accessible. That is theoretically a good thing, and the SAB applauds the sentiment. But the actual implementation runs into problems, namely that many of the studies involve confidential medical data that cannot be made public.
But the board argues that the problems are much more extensive than that. The plan calls for “raw data” to be made available to the public, but it doesn’t define the term. This vagueness is present throughout. “The lack of criteria for what might satisfy the requirement makes it difficult to understand the implications,” the board argues in regard to the proposal’s lack of definition of what research needs to be made available. The rule suggests there may be exceptions to the requirement but doesn’t say what they are.
It also doesn’t explain how the public’s access will be paid for. Archiving data involves ongoing costs, and the EPA hasn’t made clear who was going to pay for them.
EPA policies face a tangled set of requirements. Policies have to be produced through the formal federal rulemaking process and be consistent with the legal abilities that Congress has designated to the EPA, often refined through court decisions. They have to address issues delegated to the EPA, such as clean air and water. In many cases, the laws that have delegated these powers to the EPA specify that the rulemaking process must incorporate scientific and economic analysis. Finally, to the extent that all of that allows, the policies have to be consistent with the political goals of the current administration.
The SAB’s job is to highlight when one of those factors—the best available science—isn’t being properly considered. That doesn’t mean considering it will change a policy, given all those other factors. But the issues highlighted by the SAB suggest it’s not being considered at all, which may make some of the Trump policies difficult to defend in court.
And it provides a solid indication that the SAB remains committed to identifying the best available science, even when that may not be popular with the EPA as a whole.
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