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Federal judge scraps US EPA’s science rule

Trump administration’s controversial action lacked legal basis, court finds

by Cheryl Hogue
February 1, 2021

Photo shows a gavel.
Credit: Shutterstock

A federal court Feb. 1 struck down a controversial Trump administration rule on the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of science.

The rule changed how the EPA weighs scientific information that underpins its regulations on pollution control and restriction of commercial chemicals. Under the rule, the EPA had to give greater weight to studies based on data that are available for public review. That presented a problem for epidemiological studies based on confidential health records.

Critics say the rule undermined the agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment. But supporters, including the US chemical industry’s largest lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council, say the rule strengthened the agency’s scientific basis for regulations.

The EPA issued the rule Jan. 6, making it effective immediately and thus binding on the Biden-Harris administration.

But a federal trial court in Montana found Jan. 27 that the rule didn’t qualify to take effect immediately. Under federal law, only procedural rules qualify to take effect at once, the US District Court for the District of Montana says in an order. The rule on EPA science “determines outcomes rather than process” and thus cannot be legally classified as a procedural rule, Chief District Judge Brian Morris wrote.

This finding “undercuts the legal basis for issuing the rule at all,” Ben Levitan, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, which brought the case with two other advocacy groups. says in a statement. To promulgate the rule, the EPA relied on the authority of an obscure federal law that is limited to procedural actions.

Morris determined the EPA rule didn’t legally take effect until Feb. 5. This is in keeping with the federal Administrative Procedure Act, which specifies that a nonprocedural rule—also called a substantive rule—goes into effect 30 days after an agency issues it.

This finding gave the Biden-Harris administration an opportunity to halt the rule. On Jan. 31, the Department of Justice, representing the EPA, asked the court to vacate the rule. Given the court’s findings, the legal basis EPA relied on for promulgating the rule “cannot support the rulemaking,” the DOJ says in its motion. The court granted the motion Feb. 1, noting that the advocacy groups that brought the case did not object.

The rule was one of dozens that President Joe Biden directed the EPA to review under an executive order aimed at ensuring public health and environmental protections and bolstering science to address climate change.



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