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The EPA is taking unprecedented steps to oust scientists who receive its grants

Scott Pruitt is pushing out the EPA's independent science advisers and bringing in industry researchers.

EPA headquarters
EPA headquarters.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules Tuesday that will force out science advisers who have received grants from the agency and pave the way to replace them with researchers from industry.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said notices will go out this week to scientists who currently advise the agency while a new batch of researchers, including some from industry who have challenged the EPA’s regulations, will receive spots on agency’s various advisory panels.

“This policy will take effect immediately,” Pruitt said. “You will either have to choose the grant or service, but not both.”

By changing the makeup of EPA’s science advisory boards this way, Pruitt will be able to change how the government builds the foundation for environmental regulations.

The Board of Scientific Counselors, for example, helps decide which issues the EPA investigates and provides recommendations for how to conduct robust research. This research in turn helps set benchmarks for policies like air quality standards that affect human health. This scientific board also provides cover for the agency in lawsuits that challenge regulations.

The changes have upset some science advisers who are worried that this means the EPA will have a selective view of the science it uses to develop policy.

“It’s the equivalent of burning books that you don’t like,” said Elena Craft, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, who was pushed out of the air, climate, and energy subcommittee of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors in August when her term was not renewed. “I think everyone in the country should be critically concerned about these steps.”

Earlier this month at a Heritage Foundation meeting, Pruitt hinted at why he thought the change was necessary, citing concerns about the “the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way” from the advisory boards.

On Thursday, he again claimed that researchers who receive EPA grants are not able to provide independent scientific advice. “When you receive that kind of money, $77 million just over the past three years, there’s a question that arises about independence,” Pruitt said at a press event at EPA headquarters where he didn’t take any questions. Yet he did not cite any specific conflicts of interest or incidents that demonstrate there is a problem with the grants to advisors.

Current and former EPA science advisers, however, said that the advisory boards do not play a direct role in policy, that ruling out scientists who have received grants eliminates the most qualified researchers, and that existing conflict-of-interest rules prevent any issues from arising.

Joseph Rodricks, a consulting scientist with the Ramboll Group who is still named as a member of the BOSC executive committee, said that the idea of blocking scientists who have received grants from the EPA undermines the integrity of the agency’s work, since many of these scientists have direct experience and expertise in areas relevant to the agency. “The people who are best qualified to give the agency advice are being excluded,” he said. “There are all kinds of mechanisms to avoid conflicts of interest. If that’s the tale, I think it’s a phony tale.”

For Pruitt, though, the move seems to be yet another step toward drastically whittling down the EPA’s work as an environmental regulator, as Vox’s David Roberts outlined this summer.

In addition to revamping the scientific advisory boards, Pruitt has met almost exclusively with fossil fuel interests while freezing out his agency’s own scientists from reviewing regulatory rollbacks. He’s also started laying the groundwork to challenge the EPA’s own legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Pruitt has described this as a “Back-to-Basics Agenda,” but environmental advocates read it as a process to undermine basic air and water protections for the benefit of industry.

And the EPA is doing most of this in secret, with Pruitt going as far as to build a $25,000 secret phone booth at the agency’s headquarters (a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, in government-speak).

Independent science advisers were being forced out as early as May

The EPA maintains a stable of outside scientific advisers across several boards and subcommittees, including those that advise the administrator and others that review the integrity of the agency’s research programs, drawing from academic institutions, nonprofits, industry, and government.

The dismantling of the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors began in May with the dismissal of 12 of its experts who came from various fields of environmental science and policy. The move caught them off guard, especially after some received assurances that their positions would continue.

“After the election, before the inauguration, our relationships didn’t change. ... At the time in January, things seemed just fine,” said then-board member Robert Richardson, an environmental economist at Michigan State University. “That’s what made it very surprising to receive that email in May.”

In June, the EPA declined to renew dozens of other science advisers whose terms expire in August. The EPA acknowledged but did not respond to requests for comment.

The agency’s science advisers ensure the credibility of the information the EPA uses to build its regulations, ranging from the risks of infection to cost-benefit analyses of regulations.

An EPA official who asked not to be named explained that the agency brings scientists on board from industry and academia to harness their individual scientific judgments, not as representatives of their institutions. Researchers are appointed to a three-year term, with one chance to renew, though the majority serve close to six years, according to the official.

“The Science Advisory Board conducts independent reviews of just about anything of consequence that has a scientific underpinning,” the official said.

This appointment cycle is staggered so that the EPA’s scientific advisory board has a 20 percent turnover rate each year, and the hiring of scientists to conduct reviews is usually apolitical.

“Typically, up till now, it’s always been independent of administrations,” the official said, adding that letting scientists go en masse is highly unusual. “As far as I can tell, this is the first time this has happened.”

Donna Kenski, director of data analysis at the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, was forced out only one year into her term on the charter committee of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which advises the EPA administrator on air quality standards.

“That was exceedingly disappointing,” she said. “I have no formal explanation about the reasoning. My organization received money from EPA, so that is ostensibly one reason.”

Deborah Swackhamer, an emeritus professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota who previously chaired BOSC, called Pruitt’s Thursday announcement “disturbing.”

Even current members of the BOSC are in the dark about the future of the board. “I’ve been told nothing,” said Rodricks, the scientist who is still named as a member of the BOSC executive committee. “I guess I’m still on the board. I’m still listed there.”

He noted that he chairs the water subcommittee, which was scheduled to have two meetings this year, but both were canceled without explanation. He was also asked to reapply for his position, which he did, even though his term isn’t set to expire until 2020.

“It’s been a little fuzzy, shall we say,” he said.

New advisers are bringing their own conflicts of interest

At the event Thursday, Pruitt named new chairs for BOSC, as well as EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which advises the administrator, and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

Michael Honeycutt, who leads the toxicology division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, was selected to chair the Science Advisory Board and spoke briefly at the event.

He has argued against the EPA’s ozone rules for much of his career, saying that higher ozone levels don’t lead to worse lung problems and that Texans would oppose any environmental rules that would make them change how they drive.

However, he began lobbying for a seat on one of the EPA’s advisory councils last year.

“He's politicized the EPA and cast doubt on the agency's science. I just don't know why he would be interested in joining the science advisory committee,” Air Alliance Houston executive director Adrian Shelley told the Houston Press. “It can be a tall platform to advance your views, though. Maybe that's what he wants, the platform.”

The Texas Observer also noted that Honeycutt tends to side with industry in his public statements on pollution.

The TCEQ declined to comment and directed inquiries to the EPA.

Kenski noted that Honeycutt’s nomination to the advisory board undercuts Pruitt’s rationale for removing scientists because the TCEQ, like many state environmental agencies, receives grants from the EPA. Federal funding yields $48.5 million for the TCEQ, or 9 percent of its budget.

This includes a number of TCEQ special projects. The EPA has also funded some of the state’s cleanup after Hurricane Harvey.

“In the name of preventing conflicts of interest, they’ve introduced so many more conflicts of interest,” Kenski said.

Meanwhile, Pruitt is packing top EPA offices with industry interests

Pruitt’s efforts to push scientists out of the EPA are being complemented by steps to bring industry interests on board, particularly in management roles.

The New York Times reported that political appointee Nancy Beck in the EPA’s toxic chemicals office, formerly with a chemical industry trade group, was instrumental in writing a rule rolling back monitoring of a hazardous chemical.

Michael Dourson, who was this week confirmed by the Senate to be Beck’s boss, was already working at the EPA even before the vote went through, drawing the ire of lawmakers. His consulting company had a long list of clients in the chemicals industry.

Coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler was nominated earlier this month to be Pruitt’s second in command. Samantha Dravis, who now leads the EPA’s deregulation efforts, was a former official at the Republican Attorneys General Association, which filed lawsuits against the EPA. A former top lawyer at the American Petroleum Institute, Erik Baptist, is now the EPA’s senior deputy general counsel.

Though the White House’s proposal to gut EPA’s budget by one-third is unlikely to make it through Congress, these personnel changes portend a drastic reshaping of EPA’s work in protecting the environment.

Some of the scientists who remain are being told to keep quiet about climate change

Last week, the EPA abruptly canceled presentations from some of its scientists at an event on climate change without explanation.

“It’s definitely a blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA,” John King, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told the New York Times.

The event would have been inconvenient for Pruitt’s efforts to discredit climate change science and to dismantle regulations that stem from it.

Michael Cox, a former EPA climate adviser, told the Huffington Post’s Highline that these developments are all a continuation of the long-running antagonism Pruitt has had for his agency.

“I’ve worked with six administrations — from Reagan’s until this one — and we’ve had differences in opinion, but there was never the feeling anyone was coming in to dismantle the organization and really do damage to it. But we felt like that from the very first time Scott Pruitt had an all-staff meeting,” Cox said. “It was very clear that he was talking down to us. We were the EPA. We were the bad guys. We were the problem.”

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