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Trump’s EPA Is Undermining Its Own Scientists

Amid a historic pandemic, the agency is moving forward on what experts consider dangerously weak air quality standards.

June 3, 2020

Crit­ics have condemned the Trump admin­is­tra­tion for dismiss­ing and contra­dict­ing science in its response to the coronavirus crisis — point­ing to everything from the muzz­ling of CDC experts to the pres­id­ent’s own unfoun­ded claims from the White House podium on poten­tial cures. Yet these attacks on science-based poli­cy­mak­ing during the pandemic are only the latest examples of a disturb­ing pattern through­out the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, one with poten­tially grave long-term consequences.

The admin­is­tra­tion’s long­stand­ing hostil­ity to science has been espe­cially evid­ent in the realm of envir­on­mental policy. The Envir­on­mental Protec­tion Agency has used the historic pandemic as an excuse to stop enfor­cing envir­on­mental laws, such as rules for water pollu­tion and stor­ing hazard­ous waste. Addi­tion­ally, over the last two weeks the agency sought to press forward with public hear­ings on what many scient­ists consider danger­ously weak air qual­ity stand­ards for soot and other air pollut­ants, also known as partic­u­late matter or PM2.5.

New research strongly indic­ates that current allow­able levels of partic­u­late matter pollu­tion are too high, result­ing in tens of thou­sands of deaths per year. Because of large racial inequit­ies in hous­ing and wealth, Black and Latino communit­ies are more likely to be exposed to high concen­tra­tions of these particles than white people. And evid­ence suggests that high expos­ure to partic­u­late matter and other air pollut­ants increases mortal­ity from Covid-19, which may be a factor in the dispro­por­tion­ately high death rate in communit­ies of color in the United States.

Based on the grow­ing evid­ence of the inad­equacy of the current PM2.5 regu­la­tions, the EPA’s own staff has called for a more strin­gent air qual­ity stand­ard. Former govern­ment science advisors and a wide range of outside experts also support tightened rules. But the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has decided not to change the stand­ard.

To get to its preferred result, the admin­is­tra­tion has system­ic­ally margin­al­ized its own scientific experts. This was espe­cially evid­ent in the reduced role of the EPA’s scientific advis­ory commit­tees, which are panels of outside experts who provide inde­pend­ent advice to poli­cy­makers. Across govern­ment agen­cies, these commit­tees allow poli­cy­makers to tap into expert­ise from outside the govern­ment on a range of topics. Although they rarely make head­line news, scientific advis­ory commit­tees play a crit­ical role in ensur­ing that policy decisions with poten­tially massive impacts on public health and secur­ity are guided by the best avail­able evid­ence.

The PM2.5 stand­ard review ought to have included inde­pend­ent analysis from the Clean Air Scientific Advis­ory Commit­tee (CASAC), with assist­ance from a dedic­ated Partic­u­late Matter Review Panel of PM2.5 special­ists. But instead of rely­ing on the experts who were serving on these commit­tees, former EPA Admin­is­trator Scott Pruitt purged them by barring member­ship for advis­ory commit­tee members who had received EPA research grants, as many top scient­ists who are not affil­i­ated with industry do. This not only deprived the agency of guid­ance from lead­ing research scient­ists in the field, it also allowed Pruitt and his aides to fill new vacan­cies with their ideo­lo­gical allies.

The grantee ban was later struck down in federal court, but only after Pruitt and his successor, Andrew Wheeler, had replaced many exper­i­enced scient­ists on CASAC with former Repub­lican state govern­ment offi­cials and industry consult­ants. Several of these new appointees had a history of ques­tion­ing the scientific consensus about the harm­ful effects of air pollu­tion.

The EPA also shut down entirely the special­ized Partic­u­late Matter Review Panel — many of whose former members have since endorsed tighter PM2.5 regu­la­tions — despite strong objec­tions from two CASAC members, includ­ing the only remain­ing inde­pend­ent scient­ist. Freed from having to consider this addi­tional inde­pend­ent recom­mend­a­tion, the recon­sti­t­uted CASAC voted to over­rule the EPA staff scient­ists’ proposal to tighten the PM2.5 stand­ard. Wheeler approved CASAC’s decision, claim­ing the science was too uncer­tain to justify a rule change. Despite volu­min­ous testi­mony to the contrary presen­ted over the four days of hear­ings that concluded last week, this will almost certainly be a final decision.

As with the admin­is­tra­tion’s flawed coronavirus response, the EPA’s process for assess­ing the PM2.5 stand­ard shows how easy it has become for polit­ical offi­cials to ignore science to manip­u­late policy-making processes. To ensure that govern­ment decision-makers can adequately protect the health and safety of Amer­ic­ans, Congress must safe­guard the role of inde­pend­ent scient­ists at crit­ical agen­cies like the EPA.

The Bren­nan Center’s bipar­tisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Demo­cracy has published a series of legis­lat­ive propos­als to strengthen science-based policy-making, includ­ing reforms to safe­guard the proper func­tion­ing of scientific advis­ory commit­tees. The Scientific Integ­rity Act, which the Task Force has endorsed, recently passed the House of Repres­ent­at­ives as part of the Heroes Act and contains several provi­sions that align with the Task Force’s legis­lat­ive propos­als.

The PM2.5 saga also illus­trates how wealthy indi­vidu­als and special interest groups can subvert policy-making proced­ures to advance their own interests rather than those of the public, both through campaign spend­ing and the appoint­ment of industry repres­ent­at­ives to senior govern­ment posi­tions. The EPA’s proposal to leave the PM2.5 stand­ard unchanged will bene­fit the finan­cial interests of oil and gas compan­ies. Major Repub­lican donors and campaign spend­ers like the Amer­ican Petro­leum Insti­tute and the Cham­ber of Commerce support this policy. Wheeler himself worked as a lobby­ist for the coal industry (chiefly top Trump donor Robert Murray) and other energy groups before join­ing the EPA. But he was not required to recuse himself from the PM2.5 stand­ard process despite the signi­fic­ant finan­cial bene­fit to his former employ­ers and clients. Prop­erly safe­guard­ing the role of science in govern­ment also requires broader ethics and campaign finance reforms to address such concerns, like those in H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a land­mark demo­cracy reform bill passed by the House last year.

The coronavirus crisis has shined a spot­light on the poten­tially cata­strophic impact of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s disrespect for scientific expert­ise in govern­ment. Polit­ical inter­fer­ence in govern­ment science, espe­cially on sens­it­ive issues like the envir­on­ment, didn’t start with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, but it has escal­ated to unpre­ced­en­ted levels in the last three years. Congress must take action to reverse this trend — the health and safety of all Amer­ic­ans depend on it.