GOP lawmakers are changing role of research in rule making
EPA advisory boards would include industry representatives
Congress and the Trump administration are planning sweeping changes in how science is used to govern public health.
Controversy over climate change may be getting all the attention right now, but legislation under consideration would transform the way the Environmental Protection Agency combats pollution, identifies harmful pesticides and classifies everyday toxins, such as laundry detergent, window cleaner and clothing dye.
President Donald Trump has vowed to flatten regulatory hurdles for American business, and Congress’s proposed EPA rules for science would make commerce easier. The president has proposed a 31 percent budget cut for the EPA and installed an opponent of the agency, Scott Pruitt, as its leader. Pruitt began the new era of industry over environmental regulation last week by reversing years of scientific opinion, rejecting a proposed ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used on fruits and vegetables that has links to brain damage.
Bills under deliberation would open EPA expert advisory panels to industry representatives and mandate the use in formulating policy of what sponsors call the “best available science,” which opponents say would exclude widely used research methods and delay action. An EPA program that certifies consumer products that are free of hazardous substances could also be in peril.
Lawmakers and environmentalists are predictably split on the legislation.
The bills “really pull the rug out from under the independence of the scientific process,” said Thomas Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and former EPA adviser. “We’re going to turn back the clock on public health. This is the most devastating blow I’ve ever seen.”
Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, who chairs the House committee that oversees the EPA, said that “the days of trust-me science are over.’’
“Open and honest science should be at the core of the EPA’s mission rather than rules that end up costing American taxpayers billions of dollars,’’ Smith said in a statement last week.
That was Smith’s rationale for the Honest Act, which the House passed 228-194 on Wednesday. It would bar the EPA from creating any regulation based on data that’s not publicly available or can’t be replicated.
The law would mean eliminating studies that cite epidemiological research, such as the one that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT, which was shown to cause cancer in humans and deadly effects in birds like bald eagles. Leaded gasoline was also taken off the market due to epidemiological research, which exposed its link to brain damage in children.
A day after the House approved the Honest Act, the EPA Science Advisory Board Act passed 229-193, allowing industry representatives to serve without special permission, while excluding scientists whose research receives EPA funding. Doing that would prevent extreme views, according to its sponsor, Oklahoma Republican Representative Frank Lucas.
“We live in a very cynical time, where people question everything the government does,’’ Lucas said in an interview. Revising the makeup of the board “creates a more balanced situation” and “will move the standard that is something closer to the middle no matter who is in charge of the federal government.”
But the legislation undercuts the EPA’s mission, said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House committee overseeing the EPA.
The bill “makes it easier for industry representatives with conflicts of interest to serve on advisory boards at the EPA while making it harder for scientific experts, all while slowing the regulatory process,” Johnson said in a statement.
The Better Evaluation of Science and Technology Act, also called the BEST Act, aims to decrease the number of lawsuits filed against government agencies and reduce questions about the quality of underlying data in their regulations, its sponsor, Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford, said in a statement.
Yogin Kothari of the Union of Concerned Scientists called it a “Trojan horse transparency bill” that weakens regulations by casting doubt on the science used to back them. It could have the effect of excluding newer findings, which may reveal harm undetected by older research, he said.
These bills come at a time when an update of the Toxic Substances Control Act, signed into law last year, could limit the ability of states to enact regulations that are tougher than federal standards. They still must be approved by the Senate, where they could be stalled by filibusters.
Environmentalists say they fear a stroke of a pen could eliminate the EPA’s Safer Choice program. Congress has tried to scuttle it before. The program approves household products such as laundry detergent and window cleaner that are free of hazardous substances.
Companies governed by the program say they favor it. Last month, almost 200 corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Procter & Gamble Co., Dow Chemical Co. and BASF, wrote to Pruitt, saying it “helps consumers, businesses, and procurement officers/purchasers to identify products that go beyond regular safety standards.”
But many of the same industries that fought restrictions on DDT and leaded gasoline in the past are trying to block regulation now, said Daniel Rosenberg, senior attorney of the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.
“If a bill would make it harder for EPA to protect the public from chemicals like lead, mercury and asbestos, it’s something that no reasonable member of Congress should support,” he said.
The bills are H.R. 1430 and H.R. 1341.