By John O’Grady
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please,” said Mark Twain. But, in a twist that Twain, our most ardent purveyor of American absurdity, couldn’t have predicted, Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency takes aim at the underlying scientific facts themselves, creating barriers to citing them and using them to protect us.
Opening yet another front in the war on science, Pruitt’s recent plan calls for the EPA to use environmental research that cites only publicly available data, which greatly narrows the field of research, and is replicable. It sounds like such a compelling plan. “Reject secret science” seems like a reasonable talking point, with some nice-sounding buzzwords, like “transparency” and “public accountability.”
Pruitt’s proposal significantly restrains the EPA’s ability to protect the American public from major pollution sources. Previously, the EPA protected public health by examining a wide body of scientific research to draft the rules. If the agency is limited in the studies it may use to determine the nature of human health risks, it will not be armed and able to validate future action in regulating air and water pollution.
Studies of the epidemiological effects of environmental contamination often protect the participants by keeping personal information confidential. This is standard practice in peer-reviewed scientific studies using private health information and is essential to get the necessary information that informs scientists of the pathways of pollution and the results on the human body.
Further, many groundbreaking studies are not replicable, such as human health studies after the dropping of atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima or the effects on sea life after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Older studies feature many subjects who are now dead, who the EPA could not contact or verify. The toll on Americans is immeasurable.
Make no mistake: Pruitt’s plan of attacking “secret data” is not about scientific rigor. It is yet another way to evade inconvenient facts. The proposed changes in dealing with scientific studies at the EPA may erode the very foundations of the rules themselves by restricting the science on which they are based. Pruitt’s move could attack environmental laws, which include hard-fought protections linking air pollution to heart disease and connecting hazardous chemicals to cancer.
In many ways, Congress has already required that the EPA consult the best-available science when it sets limits for hazardous chemicals or evaluates the effectiveness of its own regulations. This ever-evolving process welcomes new scientific findings and uncovers gaps in data that are needed to persist in answering human health questions. It’s why EPA scientists must stay informed of all recent development and research to analyze the latest scientific findings advanced by peer-reviewed publications.
The costs of doing business under Pruitt’s plan could be extensive, and expensive. In analyzing the HONEST Act for Congress, the EPA found that assessments for certain toxic chemical compounds cite hundreds or even thousands of data sets, all of which would have to be gathered and released for public inspection. This data transparency would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, requiring the EPA to develop an electronic system for data examination.
EPA staff would have to redact personally identifiable information in the research information because the release of the data would be subject to federal law restricting which personal details can be posted about private citizens. Such a system would cost the agency $250 million annually and will drastically reduce the number of regulatory actions and curtail the EPA’s authority to protect us against health risks.
We fear this science reform plan will be attempted through a simple directive from Pruitt, in the same way he ordered the EPA’s science advisory panels to comply with arbitrary rules regarding grants. Currently, the EPA is not releasing its plans for rolling out any draft rules or a timeline for their implementation. Pruitt is expected to restrict science in this way shortly.
In Pruitt’s plan, it appears inconvenient facts can be swept away, and rulemaking is based on fiat, and not science, for the benefit of whomever is in power or in the name of profit, instead of for the public.
Pruitt continues his battle to scrub climate science of all legitimacy. Up until now, scientists accused him of making deceptive statements about climate change, but the EPA had so far resisted enlisting its own industry scientists in the scam. In a leaked internal email advising agency staff to downplay the certainty of climate science, the EPA provided its managers in the 10 regions misleading talking points about climate change, consistent with the views of their boss. It backfired.
The email, sent by the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs to communications directors and regional public affairs directors, acknowledges that communities face “challenges” in dealing with the consequences of climate change, but provides language and advises its managers to argue that it’s questionable and debatable. The author of the email, Joel Scheraga, senior climate change adaptation adviser to Pruitt, means well, but his attempt had the opposite effect.
Once again, the agency charged with protecting the American people against climate change gases is caught denying the consequences of spewing those pollutants and criticized for ignoring an inconvenient fact. The EPA ignores the inconvenient fact that a report released by many government scientists in the last two years reiterates that humans are the “dominant” driver of global warming and that it is “highly likely” that the release of greenhouse gas emissions has caused more than half of all the effects of climate change.
EPA career scientists, the American public, endangered wildlife, lakes and streams and clean air are all becoming casualties in Pruitt’s war on science — a war that seeks to obscure and sweep aside facts and bring us closer to a system of government that no longer protects its citizens while permitting polluters and contaminants to do irreparable harm to its resources.
John O’Grady is president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of EPA Locals #238 representing over 8,000 bargaining unit employees at the U.S. EPA nationwide.