Fired EPA scientists to release air pollution report they say agency unqualified to issue
“In the history of the agency this has never happened. The new panel is unqualified and the new panel has said they were unqualified,” said a former EPA official.
Oct. 11, 2019, 6:09 AM EDT
By Phil McCausland
Nearly one year ago, the Trump administration fired a panel of more than two dozen scientific experts who assisted the Environmental Protection Agency in its review of air quality standards for particulate matter.
Now, as the EPA prepares its report on those standards later this month, 20 of those scientists are meeting independently to release their own assessment of current air pollution levels, with a focus on the particles from fossil fuels that can make people sick.
These scientists and researchers, former members of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) on particulate matter, said the EPA has stripped the panel down to its core seven members, who are ill-equipped to set air quality standards and don’t have the time to do it.
“They fired the particulate matter review panel and they said the chartered CASAC would do the review,” Chris Zarba, who served as the staff director of the Scientific Advisory Board at the EPA until 2018, said. “In the history of the agency this has never happened. The new panel is unqualified and the new panel has said they were unqualified.”
In response, the group of former panel members reconvened at a meeting in Washington on Thursday and Friday that is open to the public — exactly one year after they were told that their expertise was no longer needed. This group of scientists, engineers and researchers have formed a nongovernmental committee called the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel.
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The new panel feels their work is necessary for the very reasons that particle pollution is regulated by the EPA: because extended exposure can cause premature death, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and respiratory issues, according to the agency.
EPA said it is confident in its own panel and experts and said it “is committed to scientific integrity and transparency.”
“EPA has the utmost confidence in its career scientist and the members on its science advisory boards and panels,” an agency spokesperson said. “EPA routinely takes comments from the public and outside organizations, including those not employed or associated with EPA, and will continue to take into consideration those comments that meet our scientific standards.”
Under previous administrations, because of health risks from particle pollution and the science's complexity, the EPA has enlisted the aid of outside experts to help them come to the strongest scientific consensus on air quality standards, said John Bachmann, the former associate director for science and policy in the EPA's Air Office. That work with outside help remained consistent for almost 40 years.
Those experts were helpful because the Clean Air Act requires that the standards of particle matter be re-examined every five years with the latest scientific evidence, which is challenging, explained Bachman. Oftentimes, the five-year deadline is not met to ensure the latest science is thoroughly reviewed and related to the new standard.
"Being only seven people, CASAC doesn’t have enough people to cover the scientific issues that come up with the reviews,” said Bachman, who explained that the panels would typically be filled with experts on epidemiology, toxicology, medicine and more.
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The fear is that the EPA under the Trump administration is not willing or able to approach these new standards earnestly, which could lead to major health issues, but the other goal, these scientists say, is to broadcast that they believe this administration isn't taking science seriously — or even trying to block it.
"It’s pretty clear in the context of this EPA there’s a strong agenda to roll back regulations, and the science does not always lead to a conclusion that a rollback is the right thing to do," said Christopher Frey, the chair of this new panel and the former CASAC chair. "Rather than listen to the science and make an appropriate decision, science is being sidelined."
This new panel hopes to counter that by providing the scientific expertise they believe is lacking in the EPA's own consideration of these new standards.
“It’s really heartening to see the comments that are already coming in to the (questions) we wrote and how people are taking them seriously," Bachman said. "They’re providing advice like we did in the past. Not all of these folks are going to agree with each other or the EPA, but this is something the EPA should really want to continue.”
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While many said it is inspiring that this group of scientists came together to release this report, it also highlights a troubling development in which the federal government is not participating in scientific dialogue, Gretchen Goldman, the research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, said.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is underwriting the meeting of scientists.
“There are other efforts like this where people outside of the government are picking up the slack,” Goldman said. “There are opportunities to do that. But it’s ultimately not our job, and we can’t expect outside actors to pick up the slack. This is important work, but it’s not a sustainable model.”
That’s not the only concern that some have in this arena.
Current and former EPA officials point out that enforcement and inspection of pollution standards have fallen under the current administration.
Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney and president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents hundreds of Midwest EPA employees, said that enforcement under the Trump administration has deteriorated because of a declining workforce and a recent agency reorganization.
An EPA spokesperson said enforcement numbers have fallen because they have pursued partnerships with some states, are “leveraging the efforts of the private sector by encouraging self-audits and self-disclosure” and has “focused its resources on areas important to the protection of public health and the environment.”
The Obama administration averaged more than 18,000 EPA inspections related to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and a handful of other environmental regulations, according to the agency’s own numbers.
That inspection figure has fallen to about 10,500 over three years under the Trump administration. Enforcement of administrative compliance, penalties and civil judicial reviews fell by nearly 1,000 cases from the almost 2,850 under the Obama administration from 2009 to 2016.
“Even if you get a new administration, (the level of enforcement) is going to kill anything that administration is able to do because there’s no cases that you would have from the previous three or four years,” Cantello said.