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Daily News Blog

06
Feb

EPA Sued over Policy that Limits Public Interest Group Participation on Fed Advisory Boards

(Beyond Pesticides, February, 6, 2018) Scientists, doctors, and environmental groups are pushing back against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to purge academic scientists who had previously received EPA grants from sitting on the agency’s advisory committees. Last October, EPA issued a new policy that changes the makeup of its advisory boards by limiting the participation of scientists from academia and nonpartisan nonprofit organizations. Critics say the change attempts to fill these advisory committees with more industry-friendly officials whose belief systems are anti-environmental protection. On January 23, 2018, a group of scientists filed suit against EPA, citing the directive as arbitrary, without any factual or legal grounding and in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires advisory committees to be fairly balanced and protected from inappropriate influence by the appointing authority.

In 1978, Congress directed the EPA to establish the Science Advisory Board, which today is a 47-member panel, to provide scientific advice to the Administrator. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in October that he would exclude anyone from serving on any of the 23 EPA scientific advisory boards if they had received EPA grants to fund any of their research. Administrator Pruitt claims the policy change will prevent conflicts of interest. But, his decree means that the agency’s decision makers will not receive input from top scientific experts, many of whom rely on public grants to conduct independent studies.

The lawsuit explains that open exchange of accurate scientific information is a touchstone of a functioning democracy, and contends that the Administrator failed to explain why scientists and experts who receive similar funding from other sources — scientists affiliated with private industry or local governments — fall outside the scope of the purge. In singling out academic members of the scientific community who are receiving EPA grants, EPA’s directive “lays bare its real function: to stack the deck against scientific integrity.” The lawsuit asks the court to overturn Pruitt’s directive and prevent EPA staff from implementing the directive.

“This is an abuse of power and an affront to the scientific integrity of the EPA and the federal government,” said Joshua Goldman, senior legal analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This directive singles out scientists from the nonprofit and academic sector—recognized experts in their field who want to serve the public—and asks them to choose between public service and their scientific work. It’s another example of this administration’s hostility to independent scientific input and basing policy on impartial and balanced scientific evidence. The directive inherently prevents the agency from receiving independent scientific advice, and erects unnecessary barriers to scientists who want to use their expertise to serve the public.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court for the District of Massachusetts by Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and the law firm Jenner & Block, representing the Union of Concerned Scientists and Dr. Elizabeth A. (Lianne) Sheppard, professor at the University of Washington, School of Public Health.

This lawsuit comes one month after Earthjustice filed a similar complaint on behalf of Physicians for Social Responsibility, National Hispanic Medical Association, and the International Society for Children’s Health and Environment, challenging EPA’s attempt to remove scientists from the agency’s advisory committees. Earthjustice’s suit argues that the policy illegally overrides federal ethics rules and that it is arbitrarily biased in favor of corporate interests. Advisors picked by Administrator Pruitt to join the advisory boards, like Robert Phalen, once claimed that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.” Such advisors will inevitably tilt EPA decisions and programs in favor of polluters. Another Science Advisory Board appointees include a new chair, Michael Honeycutt, who has claimed that more smog would be a “health benefit.” As the lead toxicologist on Texas’ state environmental agency, he has opposed stricter limits on mercury and arsenic releases and undermined protections for benzene, a common and powerful carcinogen

The EPA’s Science Advisory Board now includes 14 new members who consult or work for the fossil fuel or chemical industries, which gave sizeable campaign contributions to Administrator Pruitt when he was an Oklahoma state senator and attorney general, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Science advisory boards also play a crucial watchdog role. Scientists from across the country from diverse backgrounds are relied on the review and provide council to EPA programs and decision-making, ensuring the science is robust, transparent and sufficiently assessed to provide adequate protections for the environment. According to Earthjustice, since 2012, industry allies in Congress have repeatedly proposed legislation that would prohibit scientists from serving on the boards if they receive EPA grants. Industry understands that academic experts rely upon these grants to a much greater extent than industry consultants do. Much of the grant money goes to support graduate students who conduct academic research while earning paltry stipends—$24,000 per year is typical. If academics must choose between receiving EPA grants and continuing to serve on science advisory boards, the choice they really face is whether to continue funding students. Unsurprisingly, many teachers are committed to their students and will choose to leave the boards rather than decline funding. Pruitt then can replace them with industry allies.

These changes to EPA’s science advisory boards in just one of a host of measures aimed at dismantling the agency and opening the gates for an industry take over. While environmentalists and public health experts have criticized EPA for lax or inadequate regulation, the administrator has been getting rid of EPA scientists and staff and attacking public health and the environment through proposed budget cuts by the Trump administration.

Source: Earthjustice, Think Progress

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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