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RNRF Congressional Forum: Can EPA Fulfill its Statutory Mandate?

On October 15, 2019, the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (RNRF) conducted a congressional forum on the impacts of recent administrative and regulatory changes at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hosted the meeting on Capitol Hill. Speakers were Chris Zarba, formerly with EPA, and Gretchen Goldman, with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Both speakers discussed the changes in the context of EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment.

Advisory Panels

Chris Zarba is former director of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) staff office with nearly 40 years of experience with the agency. He shared his knowledge of the value of high-quality independent reviews, and how they influence, support and challenge agency actions. He also described how recent changes to SAB operations have negatively impacted EPA’s ability to accomplish its mission.

High quality independent scientific reviews are essential for EPA to ensure that its efforts are based on the best available science. The SAB staff office facilitates and supports this process.

SAB staff are housed within the EPA Administrator’s office and manage two major committees – SAB and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). SAB provides vital science advice to the EPA Administrator to ensure that agency actions are based on sound data and analyses. CASAC provides independent technical advice to the EPA Administrator on national ambient air quality standards. CASAC oversees panels on environmental science topics related to its mission including particulate matter (PM) and ozone pollution standards. SAB covers a more diverse environmental portfolio.

Zarba explained the importance of SAB by detailing his experiences with it throughout his career. His first professional interaction with SAB was the process of establishing criteria standards for pollutants contained in sediments. There were none at the time. This was a pressing issue because many Superfund sites around the country needed to be cleaned but there were no set criteria for measuring contamination levels.

Zarba assembled a team to develop a strategy to establish these criteria. In this process he recognized the importance that SAB should prepare a comprehensive review of the report. The SAB review provided Zarba’s team with credibility and set a high bar for their report. The SAB review also added the benefit of transparency through public meetings. Zarba noted that a SAB review provided the credibility necessary to move the project forward. After this positive experience, Zarba became an ardent advocate for SAB and helped other EPA programs prepare for the SAB review process.

As director of the SAB staff, he instituted an “openness, transparency, and balance” policy. This policy led to larger panels that had a more diverse portfolio of people, which included minority opinions as well as industry participants. The result was more robust discussion and dissenting opinions. Although SAB and CASAC determinations are advisory, and not binding, they promote public accountability by the administrator.
Operational processes began to change at SAB in the fall of 2017. The EPA Administrator issued a directive stating that anyone on the SAB, CASAC, or a subcommittee that had an EPA grant had to resign immediately – industry participants were exempted from this requirement. Term limits for committee members were changed from six years to three years – increasing the turnover rate from 16% to 33%. Individuals with EPA grants could no longer be hired, thereby foreclosing a large pool of the most qualified candidates. The hiring process changed as well. The agency no longer conducted outreach or consultations with SAB staff.

Another worrisome development was cancellation of the particulate matter (PM) panel. The reviews for the PM standard and ozone standard were handed over to the CASAC. This change raised questions as to whether the CASAC was qualified to conduct such a review. EPA hired consultants to replace lost expertise. Interactions with these consultants were not part of the public record and no consensus was required.

Zarba was also concerned about the “Transparency in Science Rule.” The rule essentially requires that if the underlying data for a scientific study is not publicly available, the science cannot be used by EPA in its decision-making. Many scientific studies on the impacts of pollution on human health rely on underlying medical records, which contain confidential information. Thus, large swaths of vital data to protect human health and the environment will not be usable.

To combat these process changes in the future, Zarba suggested that the National Academies could send out an annual letter asking for public input on SAB and CASAC. He also suggested that staffing decisions for SAB and CASAC should be depoliticized.

To access Chris Zarba’s PowerPoint presentation, click here.

Compromising Science Issues and Processes

Gretchen Goldman is the research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) Center for Science and Democracy. Goldman examined how EPA’s recent use of science in assessing health threats breaks with decades-old norms within the agency. This shift stands to diminish EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment.

The Center for Science and Democracy is greatly concerned with the process by which science informs decision-making. It has worked on scientific integrity at the federal level for many years. For decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, scientific integrity had not been a partisan issue. Under the current administration, however, science has become partisan at EPA.

Challenges to scientific integrity began under the George W. Bush Administration. At that time, UCS surveyed federal scientists over several years across agencies to gauge whether scientists believed scientific integrity was being impacted. Many scientists stated that their science was being sidelined and that they were observing political interference in their work in a way not previously experienced.

UCS continued its work on preserving scientific integrity through the Obama Administration. Goldman said that they witnessed a few scientific integrity issues but overall there was progress at federal agencies during Obama’s eight years in office. This progress included establishing whistle blower protections, scientific integrity polices, and designating agency officials to oversee scientific integrity.

During the Trump Administration, there have been many reported federal scientific integrity issues. In 2018, UCS published a report on whether the actions taken by this administration were “unprecedented” violations of scientific integrity, as they had been widely publicly characterized. The report found that the “Trump Administration’s violations of scientific integrity are largely a continuation and escalation of patterns built up over the past seven decades as science and the growing federal science apparatus increasingly came into conflict with political, economic, and ideological interests.” The report went on to state that in some cases the Trump Administration displayed a “uniquely open disregard for the conclusion of its own scientists” that “fit with the ‘unprecedented’ narrative.”

Goldman described numerous EPA policy changes for which use of science was an issue. These include: The Affordable Clean Energy Rule that replaced the Clean Power Plan, updates to the ozone and particulate matter (PM) standards, the “Transparency in Science Rule,” changes to cost-benefit analysis, loosening of emissions standards, and long-term implications of process and capacity at the agency.

Cost-benefit analysis is used by the agency to characterize the benefits of environmental rules. Goldman believes that there are many problems with the way cost-benefit analysis is performed because it is limited by what is quantifiable. For example, many environmental and quality-of-life components cannot have a monetary value assigned to them, or that monetary value is not high enough to make it attractive as a policy option. UCS is trying to address this issue through greater transparency around what information is used in the cost-benefit analysis. This approach would at least provide more opportunity to understand how decisions are being made and hold the agency accountable.

Regarding emissions standards, EPA recently changed its guidance on how industrial facilities are characterized as “major sources.” Under the Clean Air Act, “major sources” are required to have more stringent emissions standards. This change of guidance on how emissions control is handled could lead to more air pollution in areas with a high concentration of facilities.

Goldman is also concerned that EPA may not be in a good position to adjust to emerging environmental issues because of the lack of science advice and staff capacity. For example, the rapid onset of public concern around the impacts of hydraulic fracturing prompted the EPA to quickly investigate the environmental and human health impacts. If EPA is not able to be nimble in its response, negative impacts to public health and the environment are more likely.

UCS also has taken issue with political appointees at EPA reviewing scientific grants. The resulting scientific research is used to make assessments of policy-relevant science. UCS also has concerns that the “Transparency in Science Rule” will fundamentally alter what EPA can consider in its rulemaking if proprietary health data are barred from use.

Goldman noted that regulation enforcement has declined and staff are leaving the agency in previously unseen numbers. This trend will ultimately put more pressure on the EPA to do more with less and put more pressure on states, which are already under-resourced to handle required enforcement.

Another recent egregious action was the disbanding of the enormously important particulate matter (PM) scientific panel. UCS recently independently reconvened the panel to ensure that the scientific body could still inform PM standards.

Goldman also noted that Congress can act to preserve scientific integrity by passing the Scientific Integrity Act. The Scientific Integrity Act would strengthen scientific integrity measures and increase the ability of scientists within the government to communicate externally to the public and to decisionmakers. Goldman emphasized that preserving scientific integrity is vital to EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission to protect public health and the environment.

To access Gretchen Goldman’s PowerPoint presentation, click here.

— Madeline Voitier, RNRF Sr. Program Mgr.

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