EPA's science advisers vote to review plan to restrict research

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The board of scientists that advises the Environmental Protection Agency, including members recently appointed by Administrator Scott Pruitt, voted unanimously on Thursday to review the agency’s proposal to limit the kinds of scientific research it can use in crafting regulations, saying the policy requires more scrutiny from the scientific community.

FILE PHOTO: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the proposed budget estimates and justification for FY2019 for the Environmental Protection Agency on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

The Science Advisory Board (SAB) voted to back the recommendation of a smaller workgroup, which found that the agency should have sought the expert advice of the board before undertaking a policy that would significantly change how the agency uses scientific research.

“Although the proposed rule cites several valuable publications that support enhanced transparency, the precise design of the rule appears to have been developed without a public process for soliciting input from the scientific community,” said the group’s memo, which the board backed unanimously.

The panel also voted to review a number of other proposed EPA regulations, including the repeal of the Clean Power Plan and changes to vehicle emission standards, which could freeze requirements at 2020 levels through 2026.

Under the EPA’s April proposal to “end secret science,” the agency will no longer be able to rely on scientific research that is underpinned by confidential public health and industry data. The measure was billed by Pruitt as a way to boost scientific transparency for the benefit of the industries the EPA regulates.

But scientists and former EPA officials have worried it will hamstring the agency’s ability to protect public health by putting vital data off limits.

Thomas Sinks, director of the EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor, told the board that the agency has postponed the public comment period by a month to Aug. 16 and said the proposal has already received over 120,000 public comments.

Environmental and science advocacy groups welcomed Thursday’s action by the SAB.

“The leadership of the board was chosen by Pruitt himself, so their decision today is a sharp rebuke of his leadership and this dangerous proposal,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Last year, Pruitt issued a directive banning EPA-grant-funded scientists from serving on the agency’s advisory board, which paved the way for 18 new members to join the board, several of whom represented industry groups or previously opposed EPA regulations.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Leslie Adler