EPA’s “Transparency Rule” Could Limit Science’s Role In Creating Policy

A new EPA-backed proposal could end up limiting the role science plays in creating public regulations on environmental activity. Back in April, the now ex-head of the EPA Scott Pruitt introduced a piece of legislation aimed at increasing the “transparency” of regulatory science.

The new bill would allow the EPA to disregard scientific research if the raw data underlying that research is not made publicly available. Although Pruitt is no longer head of the EPA, the agency is still planning to introduce the bill to congress come August.

Critics argue that the bill is motivated by a desire to prevent the use of scientific research to regulate businesses’ environmental activity. Primarily, it is thought that the bill will be used to discredit scientific studies where the main dataset is the confidential health information of individual patients; information that is safeguarded under patient privacy laws. Opponents argue that the bill could open the way for the EPA to disregard scientific studies that underly the enforcement of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and many other regulatory landmark cases. According to Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore, the new proposal is a natural extension of past efforts from critics of the EPA to introduce “transparency” legislation that Congress has rejected. She referred to the proposal as an “administrative attempt to circumvent the legislative process.”

A Bill Against “Regulatory Science”

According to the EPA’s website, the bill was created with the purpose of making regulatory science stronger by ensuring that “regulatory science underlying Agency actions is fully transparent, and that underlying scientific information is publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.” The proposal, which can be read here, primarily focuses on “pivotal regulatory science”; that is, scientific studies that serve as the cornerstone of the enforcement of environmental regulatory policies. According to the creators, the bill is meant to address the replication crisis found in a number of scientific fields. Making data transparent, the proposal makers argue, will ultimately make our science stronger and prevent unnecessary regulatory legislation.

According to opponents, the new proposal is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to target and invalidate regulatory policies motivated by scientific studies that use private health information for their data. One of the most famous instances of a scientific study influencing policy is the well-known and widely cited “Six Cities” study in 1994. Initiated in the 1970s, the Six Cities study involved medical researchers tracking the individual health of over 22,000 individuals in six different cities over a period of 20 years. Researchers found a clear causal link between high levels of pollution in six different cities and increased rates of premature death in those cities. The study found an increased mortality risk– a difference of 2-3 years of life expectancy– for those living in places with a high concentration of particulate matter, as compared to populations living in areas with a lower concentration of particulate matter. Since then,  the “Six Cities” study has been credited as forming the core of federal air pollution regulations.

The “Six Cities” study utilized a large amount of confidential health information, information scientists are not normally required to release. Patient privacy laws forbid the public release of personal medical information, so parts of the primary data sets in these studies are kept confidential. Under the new proposal, the EPA would no longer be allowed to take into consideration such studies when creating environmental regulations. This new bill would greatly reduce the number of cases studies the EPA would be allowed to rely on when considering policy. Future regulatory efforts may find themselves stifled by an inability to utilize some of the most environmentally relevant research done in the past few decades that has relied on the confidential health information of citizens, including studies demonstrating the link between air pollution and early death and research showing the potential harms of certain pesticides.

A Growing Trend

Such a move from the EPA is keeping in line with the current administration’s general attitude towards federal regulations. Since the beginning of 2017, the Trump administration has repealed over 40 different Obama-era environmental regulations, including rules to control the amount of water runoff from coal mining and rules requiring a certain level of safety measures for factories and other industrial areas. Given the strained relationship that the current administration shares with the scientific community, what is presented as a bid for scientific accountability and transparency in research is perceived by scientific communities as an attack on science.

The EPA was founded in 1970 by president Nixon, who faced pressure from environmentalist groups to regulate the impact that federal actions have on the environment.  Since its inception, the EPA has been involved in a number of controversies, many resulting from governmental and private sector entities attempting to repress findings given in reports furnished by the EPA. For example, in 2007, then director of the EPA Stephen Johnson issued a report to the White House citing the dangers that climate change faced to the public. White House staffers, who pre-empted the contents of the document, refused to open the report, knowing that once the report was opened the contents would become public record and difficult to rescind. Such internal oppositions to the proper functioning of the EPA are widespread, with over half of EPA scientists reporting they felt political interference with their work. in addition to several other examples of findings by the EPA being repressed.

Since Pruitt took over in 2017,  the EPA has removed any mention of climate change from their official website, despite the fact that there is universal scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change and a laundry list of examples of the detrimental effects that climate change has on our natural ecosystems and society. Pruitt’s policies have further attempted to remove the voice of scientists by canceling speaking appearances of climate scientists and enacting rules that forbid scientists who receive EPA grants from serving on regulatory advisory boards. Although Pruitt has resigned from the position amidst ethics controversies, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler is slated as interim head until president Trump nominates a new agency chief.