On Transparency and the EPA: What’s Left

On April 24, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new regulation that would restrict the types of scientific studies that the agency can utilize. Specifically, the regulation would require the EPA to publish all underlying scientific data used to develop air and water policy. The regulation would thereby forbid the use of studies that do not meet this standard, even if they have been peer-reviewed. EPA Director Scott Pruitt emphasized that the decision would increase transparency. He stated, “the science that we use is going to be transparent, it’s going to be reproducible…It’s going to be able to be analyzed by those in the marketplace, and those that watch what we do can make informed decisions about whether we’ve drawn the proper conclusions or not.” 

Pruitt noted that this action “is not a policy. This is not a memo. This is a proposed rule.” This proposed rule is likely to evolve into a lawsuit, as several environmental groups have vowed to dispute the rule in court. Professor of Environmental Law at Harvard University Richard J. Lazarus stated Pruitt would be “walking into a judicial minefield” if he were to further pursue the rule. Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at UCLA Sean Hecht noted that “there’s so many different issues with it that it’s hard to know where to begin…Reading the rule, it doesn’t look like a proposal that has been strongly vetted by career lawyers… this rulemaking is extraordinary in the lack of reference to any legal authority.”

Those who oppose the proposed regulation claim that the EPA has failed to explain which federal law provides the EPA with the authority to issue such a rule. According to The New York Times, critics say that this decision will permanently weaken the agency’s ability to protect public health. Peter Thorne, a toxicologist at The University of Iowa in Iowa City stated that “I think this rule is a thinly veiled attempt to undermine the science that’s available for the EPA to use in its decision-making.” Thorne was the former chairman of EPA’s science advisory board until late 2017, as his membership wasn’t renewed by Pruitt. Additionally, the proposed regulation also poses a privacy concern. Future researchers could have increased trouble recruiting participants if they fear collected information would be publicized. Thorne observed that “if those [confidentiality] documents say we will be required to release your private information to the U.S. government or to the public, [people] would be wise not to participate.” 

The public will be given 30 days to provide commentary on the regulation before a final rule is released. The largest issue with the proposed legislation is the host of privacy concerns associated with required disclosure of all scientific research used for policy-making. This rule could potentially discourage participants from engaging in specific studies, which could then result in weaker research if participation decreased. For example, studies that connected air pollution with premature deaths by observing human exposure to pesticides would not be available to policymakers; scientists who conducted this research would be unable to break the confidentiality agreements with study subjects in order to collect sensitive personal information. Pruitt’s proposed policy would inhibit these scientific findings, thereby inhibiting larger scientific progress.

Hopefully, these policies are stopped by the courts and true transparency of information can be upheld. Pruitt’s handling of the EPA is becoming more concerning with every action he takes and policy he pursues. 

Contact JJ Citron at [email protected].