Proposed Restrictions on Science Will Hurt People and Wildlife

The common loon is highly sensitive to the effects of pollution and depends on clean water and air. A new proposal would undermine the science used to craft pollution protections and other environmental regulations. Photo by J.A. Mikulich.

Now, more than ever, we need our leaders to make rapid and informed decisions based on the best available science. But at a time when government action has the potential to dramatically alter the course of a global pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency has moved to expand and fast-track a proposal that will limit the kind of scientific research that can be used in the federal rulemaking process. This comes just weeks after the administration proposed rollbacks to the National Environmental Policy Act and is a continuation of its efforts to undermine science and weaken environmental and public health protections.

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The proposal, misleadingly titled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” would prevent the agency from using science where the underlying raw data cannot be made public as the basis for environmental and public health regulations. Excluding these scientific studies from the rulemaking process may be convenient for the fossil fuel industry and its allies, but not for human health, wildlife, or the environment.

People and wildlife both depend on clean air and clean water. Mercury emissions from coal power plants that cause impaired brain development in humans also cause reproductive harm in common loons, and acid rain can reduce the fish populations they depend on. Without access to all the best available science, the Environmental Protection Agency won’t be able to effectively craft standards that protect people and wildlife from these and other toxins.

Proposal Would Exclude Critical Research from Decision Making

The agency’s proposal states that it will “ensure that the regulatory science underlying its actions is publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.” At first glance, this may seem like a harmless effort to increase transparency of the science used in crafting regulation. In reality, it is an effort to censor research troublesome to industry by severely limiting the amount of science that can inform regulatory action. Many peer-reviewed and legitimate scientific studies contain data that cannot be made fully public because they include sensitive medical information gathered under confidentiality agreements. The Environmental Protection Agency has historically implemented important regulations that have improved public health and benefitted wildlife based on groundbreaking studies that would not have been considered under the rules of this proposal.

Native bees benefit from studies that have led to reductions in air pollution as it has been shown that bees’ ability to forage decreases as air pollution increases. Photo by Susan Hammond.

One such example is a landmark 1993 Harvard University project, known as the Six Cities study, which established a definitive link between air pollution in cities and premature deaths. The study revealed that air pollution standards at the time were too low, and people were dying due to pollutant concentrations that the Environmental Protection Agency considered acceptable. The agency could not ignore these findings. It put in place new standards that have become the foundation of our country’s air quality laws and have led to consistent improvements in air quality and health of city residents.

Had the current proposed rule been in place in 1993, this study may never have been considered, and to this day we might have the same inadequate air pollution standards resulting in more deaths of people and wildlife. Because scientists from this study signed confidentiality agreements to collect private medical data from thousands of people, the study’s data could not have been made public and it would have been deemed ineligible for consideration. The fossil fuel industry has long criticized the regulations that arose from this study, claiming that independent analysis of its results has been impossible because the underlying data have not been made public. If EPA’s proposal is implemented, not only may future studies like the Six Cities study not be allowed to inform regulation, but studies like this and others that have been used for decades might be deemed unacceptable when current regulations come up for renewal.

By excluding science with sensitive medical data that reveals harmful effects of pollution, EPA is blindfolding itself in its own regulatory process. The quality of our air and water will suffer if EPA is unable to set regulations based on sound science that it forces itself to ignore.

Proposal Would Harm Endangered Species

Data on the whereabouts of the federally threatened bog turtle is kept private to protect it from pet collectors. EPA’s proposal would prevent studies with this sensitive data from being considered when crafting rules that could protect the turtle. Photo by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

EPA’s proposed rule may also undermine endangered species protections by precluding consideration of studies that must keep their data private to protect species sought-after by collectors or poachers. Data on the precise whereabouts of certain endangered species is often not revealed to the public due to the risk that people will kill or collect them if they know where they are. Such is the case with species prized by collectors like the bog turtle or peregrine falcon. The agency will be severely limited in its ability to craft effective rules to protect these sensitive species if it cannot utilize all the data pertaining to them – including data that must be kept under wraps for the species’ own good.

Scientists Disapprove

Although the Trump administration argues that this proposal is important to the integrity of the scientific process, the editors of all major scientific journals have issued a statement disagreeing. Scientists and leaders from the country’s most respected institutions recognize that the intent of this proposal is not to increase transparency and have called on EPA to retract it. Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, succinctly described the true intent of the proposal: “[I]t was always about finding ways for those outside of the scientific community to undercut the science supporting EPA decisions.” This is clear from EPA’s supplemental notice published last month which states the agency’s desire to “allow stakeholders to reanalyze the data and models and explore the sensitivity of the conclusions to alternative assumptions.” Under the guise of transparency, EPA is bowing to the demands of the industries (“stakeholders”) it is supposed to regulate by allowing them to cherry-pick science convenient for them.

In this time of crisis and uncertainty, we can only hope that our leaders are using all of the best science to make the most informed decisions possible. Please take action now to protect people and wildlife by calling on the EPA to withdraw its proposed rule and ensure that it can use all available science in its decisions.

Tell the Environmental Protection Agency that less science hurts people and wildlife.

Take Action!
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Published: April 2, 2020