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Regulation

U.S. EPA advisers want to give formal feedback on plan to restrict the science used by agency

Surprised by proposal, scientific experts to ask agency chief to wait for their feedback before finalizing rule

by Cheryl Houge
June 4, 2018

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EPA’s proposed policy would curb the agency’s use of epidemiology studies linking harmful health effects to exposure to pollutants.

Academic and industry scientists on EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) are unanimous: They want to review EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s controversial proposed regulation that would restrict the data the agency could consider when setting new standards for allowable pollution or regulating commercial chemicals. And they want EPA to hold off on finalizing that rule until they’ve provided feedback on it.

The proposal would require the agency to rely solely on publicly available data, a move that Pruitt says will boost transparency about regulatory science and allow anyone to check, authenticate, and reproduce scientific findings that underlie EPA’s decisions. The plan would generally prohibit the agency from using certain scientific studies—notably epidemiology studies that protect participant’s identities—as well as proprietary computer models and confidential business information.

Scientific groups say the plan would leave the agency without key data. Businesses, meanwhile, support much of the proposal, seeing it as a move to curb EPA’s ability to regulate, but they worry that it doesn’t go far enough to keep their intellectual property and other proprietary information out of the hands of competitors.

Many of the three-dozen members of SAB, which consists of experts from outside the agency, expressed concern at a May 31 to June1 meeting that the agency did not turn to the board while developing the proposal, which took them by surprise when EPA released it in April. “This rule deals with a myriad of scientific issues for which the Agency should seek expert advice from the Science Advisory Board,” says a memo from an SAB working group that examines agency’s agenda of planned regulatory and other actions, which is updated twice a year. The proposal for limiting science used as the basis for regulatory actions never appeared on that list.

Some board members pointed out that the proposal itself lacked transparency. For instance, it did not include analysis of the costs of the planned changes to EPA or to the practice of science, pointed out Kenneth M. Portier, an independent consultant and statistician who has worked for the American Cancer Society.

The proposal could garner greater acceptance if SAB reviews it and supports at least parts of it, said Richard Smith, a statistics professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The meeting was the first for the SAB since Pruitt last year reshaped the board by barring academic scientists who receive research grants from the agency from serving as advisers. He appointed several new members who express concerns that EPA’s assessment of chemical risks are overly strict or who are skeptical about epidemiology studies that link pollution exposure to health problems.

Nonetheless, SAB members agreed that reviewing the document falls squarely into the board’s congressional mandate to advise EPA on the adequacy of the scientific and technical information that underpin the agency’s planned actions. “That should be our job,” said board member Frederick Bernthal, president emeritus of the Universities Research Association, a consortium of research universities.

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It remains to be seen whether Pruitt will agree to the SAB’s request to wait for the board’s input before finalizing the rule. Although the board agreed to formally ask Pruitt to seek its expert input, its actual request, which it has not yet drafted, likely will not land on Pruitt’s desk for several weeks.

Board members also agreed unanimously that they want to review the science underpinnings of proposals to withdraw or significantly change three greenhouse gas-related regulations, including the Clean Power Plan, which was President Barack Obama’s signature climate change policy.

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