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US lawmakers scrutinize EPA proposal to restrict use of scientific data

Lawmakers probe impacts of plan for regulation of particulate matter

by Cheryl Hogue
November 14, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 45


Photo shows the haze over Bakersfield, California, as seen from a hillside.
Credit: Shutterstock
The EPA's proposal to limit the scientific information it considers could affect the regulation of particulate matter. This air pollutant affects Bakersfield, California, above, as well as other US cities.

Members of the US Congress on Nov. 13 delved into a controversial proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict which scientific data it can consider as the basis for regulation.

Some Republicans in the House of Representatives asked how quickly the EPA could operationalize the plan and in turn relax an air pollution limit. Some Democrats, meanwhile, questioned the legal basis the agency is using for the proposal, which would restrain the EPA from taking into account scientific information that isn’t available to the public. The plan, proposed in April 2018, would stop the EPA from considering most epidemiology studies of exposure to pollutants as well as confidential business information provided by industry. The agency says it is making the change in the interest of transparency.

After receiving thousands of comments on the proposal, the EPA crafted a supplement to clarify the plan’s provisions. The supplement is undergoing review at the White House and is likely to be released publicly early in 2020, EPA science adviser Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta told the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Orme-Zavaleta said the final version of the plan would affect only regulatory action in the future and would not, as some news outlets reported, apply retroactively. It would, however, immediately apply to the scientific models that EPA uses, she added.

The EPA periodically reviews and revises regulations, including national air-quality standards, pointed out Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL). So when the agency updates a regulation, the proposed data restrictions could force the EPA to ignore scientific studies that undergirded the original regulation, he said.

Of particular concern to several committee members was the EPA’s regulation of particulate matter. Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and James Baird (R-IN) said this air pollution rule hurts farmers. Posey disparaged it as regulation of airborne dirt.

Baird queried Orme-Zavaleta about how fast the agency could adjust this regulation once the data restriction proposal is finalized. She replied that the EPA must follow the procedures and deadlines laid out in federal laws, noting that the agency’s goal is to protect public health and the environment.

Critical to the particulate matter regulation are two pivotal epidemiology studies that link particulate exposure to cardiovascular and lung problems and premature death. A now-retired Republican chair of the House science committee sought the studies’ underlying data in recent years. Researchers refused to turn over the information, citing patient confidentiality.

If the agency finalizes the data-restriction proposal, the next revision to the particulate matter standard would be done without considering those epidemiology studies and thus without using the best available science, said Mary B. Rice, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

David Allison, dean of the Indiana University School of Public Health–Bloomington, said at the hearing that the EPA’s proposal is too simplistic. The plan could lead the agency to cast aside some studies it should consider and to take into account other studies that it shouldn’t, Allison said.

In addition, some committee members asked about the obscure 1966 law the EPA is relying on as the legal basis for the proposal. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) asked Orme-Zavaleta whether any other federal agency has used the two-sentence law to overhaul its regulatory procedures. Orme-Zavaleta said she did not know but would ask agency legal experts to respond to his query.


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