The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing forward with a policy that could limit the science the agency uses to underpin regulations, a change long sought by conservatives but derided by many scientists and public health experts as an effort to stifle reliance on research into the harmful effects of pollution on Americans.
The agency in recent days submitted an updated version of its Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule to officials at the Office of Management and Budget.
If OMB approves, the next step would be to seek public comment, signaling that the EPA intends to finalize the controversial proposal in 2020.
The effort first gained traction when then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pushed for the changes during a high-profile announcement in April 2018. He called it a move toward greater transparency that would increase Americans' trust and confidence in the research on which the EPA bases major decisions.
The new rule would allow the EPA to consider only studies where the underlying data is made available. Critics say that would restrict the use of research that includes sensitive personal data and hamstring the agency's ability to protect Americans from toxic chemicals, air pollution and other risks.
In the annals of science, there aren't many reports that had as much of an impact as Harvard's Six Cities Study of 1993. The administration's proposal, critics add, could prevent the use of such landmark research, which showed a stark association between long-term exposure to air pollution and higher risk of premature death.
That work has influenced government pollution standards that research shows have saved thousands of lives.
On Wednesday the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the subject titled Strengthening Transparency or Silencing Science; one of the top EPA officials overseeing the plan will testify.
Momentum for the policy seemed to slow after that initial proposal. Pruitt left the EPA months later amid a flurry of ethics inquiries, and opponents of the proposal flooded the agency with comments and vows to fight the effort in court.
However, Pruitt's successor, Andrew Wheeler, has made clear that he intends to move forward with the effort, which has long been championed by conservatives such as former congressman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), who for years sought unsuccessfully to establish a similar requirement legislatively.
"Good science is science that can be replicated and independently validated, science that holds up to scrutiny. That is why we're moving forward to ensure that the science supporting agency decisions is transparent and available for evaluation by the public and stakeholders," Wheeler told a congressional committee in September.
"I fundamentally believe the more information we provide to the public, the better our regulations will be and the more they will trust our decisions."
On Tuesday, the EPA took issue with parts of that report, saying in a news release that the Times had relied on a "preliminary" draft, and not the "final text" sent to OMB for review.
In particular, the agency insisted that the proposal would not apply retroactively to existing regulations and that it would include measures to protect confidential personal information from public release.
The agency, however, declined to share a copy of the updated proposal or describe how it had changed until the interagency process is completed and a public comment period begins.
Still, the EPA working to finalize the measure before the end of President Trump's first term, overriding the opposition from science and public health groups, brought another round of swift criticism.
"This proposal has nothing to do with science. They want politicians, not scientists, to evaluate the evidence of harm to the public," Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in an online posting. " … This entire exercise is designed to exclude certain types of public health studies that demonstrate that pollution makes people sick."
Hayden Hashimoto, a legal fellow at the Clean Air Task Force, an advocacy group that, along with others, has questioned whether the EPA has the legal authority to impose the new rule, said the EPA had not adequately identified a problem in need of solving.
"Vague appeals to transparency do not warrant the agency impairing its use of quality science," he said in a statement.
"EPA already has peer review processes in place to evaluate influential scientific information that the agency relies on for its regulations."
EPA officials said Tuesday that once the agency publishes its latest proposed revisions and additions, it will take public comments for 30 days on the changes.
They said that when the agency finalizes the rule in 2020, it will take into account the more than 600,000 comments it has received since the agency first proposed the rule in 2018.
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