Congress’s Latest Stealth Attack on EPA Standards – Restrict Expert Scientific Advice

In the leading edge of what is expected to be a wave of legislation in the new Congress aimed at undermining the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to set essential public protections, the House of Representatives last week passed two bills that would undermine the agency's ability to advance good, science-based policy and improve public health.

Under the guise of improving the scientific process, the Secret Science Reform Act (H.R. 4012) deliberately creates a Catch-22 situation that would prevent EPA from developing new rules essential for protecting public health. It would prohibit the agency from developing new standards unless all scientific and technical data used to develop the rules are publicly accessible. At the same time, the legislation acknowledges that EPA is legally prohibited from disclosing the private medical data, trade secrets, and industry data that the agency uses to develop these rules.  

Some of the best real-world public health research that EPA uses to develop its standards relies on patient data like hospital admissions and emergency room visits. EPA would be excluded from considering this key source of data because personal medical data can't, and shouldn't, be made publicly available. Information on costs of controlling pollution provided by industry that EPA uses in developing its analyses of the costs of new rules is also protected as confidential business information. Requiring public release of underlying study data and industry's own information that the agency cannot legally disclose sets up the ideal opportunity for industry and its allies in Congress to cynically accuse the agency of hiding information.

The legislation expands on long-standing industry efforts to undermine EPA's work to strengthen air quality standards by attacking the agency's use of scientific data. Those efforts previously resulted in the so-called Shelby Amendment, a two-sentence rider buried in the fiscal year 1999 appropriations bill, which required that data generated by federally funded academic and nonprofit research be publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act. The actual intent behind this seemingly reasonable effort at improving scientific transparency was to provide a mechanism for industry to require academic scientists to turn over their study data for “reanalysis” to undermine study findings linking pollution to health outcomes.     

The second bill, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act (H.R. 1422), attacks EPA's scientific process by making it easier for industry experts directly impacted by new rules to serve on the agency's Science Advisory Board while preventing independent scientists from reviewing a body of science that includes their own research. This would restrict the ability of EPA to receive input from scientific experts who know the most about a subject while providing industry and its consultants the opportunity to influence the science assessment process and potentially block or delay crucial standards and safeguards.  

The bill also would also encourage delays in EPA rulemaking by pushing the Science Advisory Board into an endless cycle of additional public comment on scientific advice the agency receives. It would do this despite the fact that industry already has multiple opportunities (as do the public and public interest groups) to provide input on the various technical documents used in developing rules. Adding insult to injury, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that H.R. 1422 would cost the agency $2 million over the next four years, at a time when EPA is already severely underfunded and has far more important, publicly supported priorities to address.

Public policy and the rules to implement it should be based on the best available science. EPA already has an extensive and effective science assessment process in place. These bills aren't intended to promote good science or public health policy – rather, the goal of the legislation is to weaken or entirely eliminate public protections by attacking the science underpinning EPA's efforts. As Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) noted, the bills are a "misguided and disingenuous war on the dedicated scientists and public servants of the EPA" and represent the "culmination of one of the most anti-science and anti-health campaigns I've witnessed in my 22 years as a member of Congress."

The White House has already said it will veto both H.R. 4012 and H.R. 1422 should they ever reach President Obama's desk. As it's likely these bills, or similar versions, will be reintroduced in the next Congress, here's hoping that responsible members of Congress from both parties recognize them for what they really are – efforts to promote industry's self-serving agenda in the guise of "good science."

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