In regulating air and water pollution in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leans on scientific studies to guide the writing of regulations. The agency is still relying on landmark studies, such as one conducted by Harvard University in 1993, that established the link between air pollution and premature deaths, in order to justify air pollution rules.
However, in a move claimed to make the agency more "transparent," embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced on Tuesday a proposal to prevent the use of studies that don't make their underlying data publicly available.
This might seem like a common-sense proposal, but it could have major ramifications on how the agency governs everything from water quality to auto tailpipe emissions. Public health studies, especially ones that follow subjects over long periods of time, typically have participants sign confidentiality agreements with the researchers, and studies are published and used by the government without requiring the data be turned over. Court decisions have backed up the governments ability to use such studies, which constitutes a potential impediment to this new proposal.
Under the proposed new rule, the EPA would bar the use of such studies when formulating regulations. The ink hasn't dried, however — a 30-day comment period has begun and if finalized, the the rule will likely be subject to lawsuits from environmental and scientific groups.
The rule proposal fulfills a longtime goal of some conservative politicians, who believe that the EPA has gone too far in its efforts to reduce pollution.
“Today is a red-letter day. It’s a banner day,” Pruitt said in a hastily announced ceremony at EPA headquarters, with few if any reporters present. “The science that we use is going to be transparent. It’s going to be reproducible.”
Tim Huelskamp, president of the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank that has worked closely with the Trump White House on climate issues, endorsed the EPA's move.
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"For decades, the EPA has improperly claimed massive power to regulate nearly every aspect of our economy and lives. It is long overdue that the EPA should make such data and collection methods available for public review and analysis," he said in a statement.
The new rule amounts to a federal agency's implementation of a bill that was proposed, but never passed, by both houses of Congress. That legislation was sponsored by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who praised Pruitt at the announcement ceremony Tuesday.
“For too long, the EPA has issued rules and regulations based on data that has been withheld from the American people," Smith said. "Today, Administrator Pruitt rightfully is changing business as usual and putting a stop to hidden agendas.”
Scientists are unified in their opposition to the proposal, warning that it would severely limit the research the agency could draw from and unravel bedrock public health protections dating back decades.
On Monday, nearly 1,000 scientists signed onto a letter to Pruitt urging him not to move forward with the proposed rule.
"... Many public health studies cannot be replicated, as doing so would require intentionally and unethically exposing people and the environment to harmful contaminants or recreating one-time events (such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill)," the letter states.
The letter continues:
American Lung Association National President and CEO Harold P. Wimmer had a similar take.
“Today’s proposal would prevent the best science from informing policy decisions and result in weaker health safeguards. This approach must not stand.”
Pruitt may face questions about this proposed rule when he testifies before two House committees on Thursday, where he is likely to be pressed on his many ethical scandals that have come to light in the past two months.