EPA rollbacks clash with science, advisers warn
Draft reports target moves to weaken gas mileage standards and water pollution safeguards.
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is pressing 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 Donald 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. autos. 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, Dec. 31, suggest the administration's proposals conflict with established science. They were prepared by members of EPA's Scientific Advisory Board, a panel of experts created by Congress in 1978 to review the agency's scientific methods.
"It really calls the 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 SAB" but emphasized that the reviews "may potentially be revised" before they are finalized in January and sent to the administrator.
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 by the advisory board, which are expected to become public within days, 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 defended the way the administration has used science to craft its policies. The water pollution rule, she said, reflected 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 that 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 that it failed to analyze how a plan to loosen emissions standards for truck components would affect children's health. 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 agency 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.
North Carolina State University Professor Christopher Frey, an environmental engineer who served on the board from 2012 to 2018, said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has effectively marginalized the group.
"In effect, he's said, 'No, I'm not interested in your advice,' " Frey said. "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 that 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 typically waits for feedback from EPA staffers before conducting reviews; 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.
"The board has consistently said there [are] substantive scientific issues related to many of the proposed rules," Hamburg said. "Slow-walking any response to those requests, and then saying there isn't time, is a deliberate effort to block any scientific input."
The board's chairman, Michael Honeycutt, declined to discuss the details of the draft reports during a recent phone interview.
"We do have what we feel are scientific comments," said Honeycutt, who is Texas's top toxicologist and was appointed by then-Administrator Scott Pruitt in November 2017. He said board members are "eager" to gather and deliberate so they could offer their input to the agency. "We just stand ready to do that. We feel that's our job."
The board will discuss each report in January during four teleconferences that are open to the public.
Only one of the policies under review, which would change the way the EPA calculates the benefits of curbing toxic air pollution, did not elicit a serious challenge from the outside experts. But they did question why the agency did not examine exposure to selenium and chromium among the rule's toxic air pollutants.
The other assessments, by contrast, offer far more sweeping criticism. One takes aim at the administration's push to exclude any scientific studies from decision-making if the researchers withhold their raw data, calling it "inconsistent with the scientific method that requires all credible data be used to understand an issue" when formulating policy.
"Such a change could easily undercut the integrity of environmental laws, as it will allow systematic bias to be introduced with no easy remedy," it adds.
The report identifies "important weaknesses" in the administration's models for the U.S. auto fleet, and it cautions: "In fact, the issues are of sufficient magnitude that the estimated net benefit of the proposed revision may be substantially overstated."
Wheeler said that only one policy the group was reviewing, which would narrow the scientific studies used in crafting agency rules, involved new science worthy of independent review.
He added that his predecessor in the Obama administration, Gina McCarthy, had pushed back when the board raised the idea of scrutinizing the EPA's rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
"Gina McCarthy told them, 'No, there were no science issues with the Clean Power Plan.' They weren't to look at it," he said.
According to public records, McCarthy did not weigh in, but one of her top deputies told board members in December 2013 that there was "no new science" in a rule related to the Clean Power Plan, which addressed how carbon captured by power plants would later be stored. EPA staff briefed members of the board, who then determined no review was necessary.
Honeycutt noted that Wheeler "made it pretty clear the board should stay out of policy and stick to science. I agree a hundred percent with him. . . . I think we are staying on the side of science, and I think we have some substantive comments."
The EPA is not obligated to accept the recommendations of its scientific advisers. But Syracuse University professor Peter Wilcoxen, who chairs the work group examining the agency's rollback of federal mileage standards, said that its findings can help inform rules that will have a major effect on the country.
"The reports are important because they scrutinize whether in fact EPA was using the best available science or not," he said. "You could end up establishing a regulation for huge sectors of the economy based on incorrect information."
This article was written by Juliet Eilperin, a reporter for The Washington Post.