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EPA Advisers Try to Soften Tone of ‘Secret Science’ Report

Jan. 21, 2020, 11:46 PM

The EPA’s science advisers on Tuesday debated toning down the language of a draft report to agency chief Andrew Wheeler that finds flaws in the EPA’s proposed “secret science” rule.

The proposed rule (RIN:2080-AA14) would bar the agency from using scientific research that isn’t or can’t be made public. Critics have said the proposal is a bid to sideline the science the Environmental Protection Agency uses in regulations, because the agency wouldn’t be able to rely on epidemiological studies, which often draw on private medical information.

In some cases, the advisers’ tweaks can be seen as attempts to preserve the Science Advisory Board’s status as an impartial, science-based body.

But others reflect genuine objections to the report, and at least some support for the EPA’s justification that the rule is simply an effort to make its science more transparent and reproducible by others.

In any case, the board meeting only slightly nudged forward the formal objections to the rulemaking. The EPA isn’t required to take the board’s recommendations, and the board has complained that Wheeler ignores its work.

Nevertheless, the painstaking four-hour mark-up session also underscored the broad resistance to the rule from the scientific community. The objections are particularly noteworthy because several of the board’s members were appointed during the Trump administration.

Broadly, the board’s draft report takes a dim view of EPA’s proposed rule. One part of the report claims that the rule “could be viewed as a license to politicize the scientific evaluation required under the statute.”

Vague Terms, Negative Language

At several points during the highly technical discussion, board members pushed to change the tone of the report, making it less negative in places.

For example, some members asked to modify language about EPA’s lack of a specific plan for protecting individuals from being identified makes it “difficult to understand the implications of the proposed rule.”

But others argued that the language is appropriate. SAB chair Michael Honeycutt, director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division, said it was drawn in part from face-to-face meetings with EPA staff.

At another point, member Kimberly White, senior director of the American Chemistry Council’s chemical products and technology division, objected to a sentence about how the SAB “finds that the EPA has not fully identified the problem to be addressed by the proposed rule.”

White said that statement doesn’t reflect the views of all SAB members. Honeycutt said objecting members will be allowed to draft a minority report that will be attached to the final report.

Board members also expressed frustration that the EPA’s proposal is too vague and doesn’t define terms such as “raw data.”

Legal Challenge

The proposal is now being reviewed by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

George Thurston, director of New York University School of Medicine’s exposure assessment and human health effects program, said the rulemaking is almost certain to be litigated.

“They’re just not listening to the facts,” Thurston said during a Jan. 16 teleconference, referring to the EPA. “They’ve got lots of evidence that this is a bad idea, not in the best interests of the public, but they’re moving ahead with this anyway. That would be the argument.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergtax.com

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