As Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt faces mounting pressure to resign amid scandals and federal inquiries into his conduct, he unveiled a new rule that scales back what science the agency can use when creating regulations—a move that critics say "serves no purpose other than to prevent the EPA from carrying out its mission of protecting public health and the environment."
The new policy mandates that the EPA only rely on studies with data that is publicly available, which significantly limits what scientific research the agency can use because so many reports include personal health and proprietary information that must remain confidential. Experts say due to privacy concerns and other restraints, many of the landmark studies that have guided key environmental protections cannot be replicated to comply with the change.
And, while the agency officially revealed the rule following weeks of reporting about its development, journalists were not allowed to attend the announcement on Tuesday to ask further questions, according to Zack Colman, a White House reporter for E&E News.
This is a US gov't agency refusing to allow the press to attend its events or ask questions at major policy announcements. It doesn't publish schedules about an official whose salary is paid by taxpayers. It lies about/avoids discussing his whereabouts. It is active obfuscation.
— Zack Colman (@zcolman) April 24, 2018
As one person said on Twitter, "A press conference with no reporter makes as much sense as having Pruitt as head of EPA."
Liz Perera, Sierra Club's climate policy director, described Tuesday's announcement as "just another example of Pruitt siding with polluters over doctors, public health advocates, and parents groups."
Betsy Southerland, a longtime EPA scientist who famously resigned from the agency last year, warned that the policy will "mean throwing out the studies we rely on to protect the public, for no good reason," which will "have an enormous and negative impact on the EPA's ability to enforce the law and protect people's health."
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"The cynical purpose of this attack on science is to undo 40 years of progress making our air and water cleaner and healthier," concluded Brett Hartl, the Center for Biological Diversity's government affairs director. "Pruitt's true goal is for EPA decisions to be guided only by secret industry studies that no independent researcher ever gets to see."
A group of nearly 1,000 scientists explained in a letter (pdf) to Pruitt that the policy change—like the proposed legislation that inspired it—simply masquerades as an effort to make the EPA's regulatory process more transparent, and instead just significantly weakens the agency's ability to comprehensively consider the existing research on any given topic:
Proponents for these radical restrictions purport to raise two sets of concerns: reproducibility and transparency. In reality, these are phony issues that weaponize ‘transparency’ to facilitate political interference in science-based decisionmaking, rather than genuinely address either. The result will be policies and practices that will ignore significant risks to the health of every American.
First, many public health studies cannot be replicated, as doing so would require intentionally and unethically exposing people and the environment to harmful contaminants or recreating one-time events (such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Second, there are multiple valid reasons why requiring the release of all data does not improve scientific integrity and could actually compromise research, including intellectual property, proprietary, and privacy concerns. Further, EPA has historically been transparent in demonstrating the scientific basis of its decisions, so the public can hold the agency accountable to establish evidence-based safeguards; any changes should be made with the full consultation with and support of the scientific community.
The announcement comes as green groups and at least 170 members of Congress have called for Pruitt's resignation. Although President Donald Trump has continued to stand by his man, Pruitt—who is reportedly facing "at least 10 federal investigations" into his actions while leading the EPA—is scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill this week to take questions from lawmakers.
"With Pruitt facing lawmakers in D.C. on Thursday, this is a critical moment to keep up the pressure," 350.org said in an email Wednesday, urging the group's supporters to "send an urgent message to Congress to say it's time to #BootPruitt—now."