EPA Accused of Trying to Push Through Censored Science Rule During Pandemic

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been accused of using the COVID-19 crisis to push through a regulation that would limit the scientific evidence available to the agency when creating policies.

The EPA says the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science (STRS) rule—which was first proposed in 2018—will improve the quality of science that underlies its regulatory decisions by ensuring that this research is available for scientists to review.

But while the EPA says it is pursuing the policy in the interest of transparency, the scientific community is overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal—which many have dubbed the "censored science rule"—arguing that it is both harmful and unnecessary. If the STRS came into effect, critics say it would bar or limit the EPA from using vital epidemiological studies that, for example, link air pollution to illnesses. This is because these studies rely on confidential medical information, which would violate the privacy of the subject if disclosed.

Advocacy groups say it would restrict the EPA's use of important research, reducing the agency's ability to make effective regulatory decisions, which could ultimately harm public health.

In March, in the midst of the pandemic, the EPA announced a new version of the rule referred to as a "supplement," which the agency says provides clarifications on certain terms and aspects of the 2018 proposed rule. However, critics say the latest proposal could expand the number of studies excluded for use by EPA, while giving the agency's administrator powers to veto specific research, potentially opening the door to abuses of power.

"The one element of this that is, if you'll excuse the metaphor, the IED [improvised explosive device] of this particular proposal is that the administrator has sole authority to pick and choose studies that may or may not meet this transparency requirement," Dan Costa, former National Program Director of EPA's Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program, told Newsweek. "To choose what's used, what's not used and how it might be used, whether it's from the legitimate science publication community, or whether it comes from the industrial side. There's no oversight established. He [EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler] can simply sit there, like a monarch, and make these decisions."

In addition, critics told Newsweek that EPA is trying to ram through the new proposal during the COVID-19 pandemic when the country, and the scientific community, is distracted. They say that the EPA formally released the proposal on March 18, at the height of the crisis, and tried to limit the period for public comment—which ended on May 17—while also failing to hold a public hearing, virtually or otherwise, in an unusual move for such a far-reaching policy.

The comment period was initially only meant to last 30 days. However, the EPA received significant pushback from advocacy groups, with requests for 90 to 120 days. Eventually, the agency agreed to a comment period of 60 days.

A House Committee hearing held for the earlier version of the rule received 600,000 public comments and several calls for it to be withdrawn by scientific and public health organizations. Critics, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Environmental Protection Network (EPN)—a bipartisan organization made up of former EPA officials that analyzes the agency's decisions—say the new proposal is arguably more damaging, and should go through its own thorough public review process.

"Without a doubt they are trying to move things through during the pandemic," Mustafa Santiago Ali, EPN member and former EPA Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization, told Newsweek. "They know people can't really engage in the process when it comes to a public comment period. It's become markedly more difficult for folks to be able to effectively engage with their elected officials, because they've been focusing on COVID-19."

According to Costa, there is an expectation that the Trump administration will try to finalize the rule at some point before the elections in November, although advocacy groups may bring a lawsuit against the agency to challenge the proposal once this happens.

"[Their] goal is to put [the rule] in place in such a way that despite the outcome of the election, it would be difficult to turn this back," he said.

The UCS, a nonprofit science advocacy organization, says that the STRS would limit EPA's ability to rely on the best available science when setting regulations depriving agency decision-makers of access to studies where the underlying data cannot be made publicly available.

"Its few supporters are primarily individuals aligned with the fossil fuel and tobacco industries who have ideological axes to grind against government regulation, and want to cripple that endeavor," Ken Kimmell, president of the UCS, wrote in an article.

oil refinery
Smoke pours out of towers of the Phillips 66 Bayway oil refinery along the New Jersey Turnpike in Linden, New Jersey, December 11, 2019. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Furthermore, critics say that the the process for reviewing scientific information at the EPA is already sufficiently transparent.

The American Lung Association (ALA) said studies containing private medical data should not be made public. "In those cases, independent review bodies have also examined the studies and weighed in on the research. No legitimate reason exists to exclude those studies' critically important findings," it said in a statement.

"EPA's proposed rule to censor science would blind the agency to the true health costs of air pollution, leading to policies that fail to protect the public," the ALA said.

Newsweek asked the EPA about the claims the agency was trying to rush through the new version of the rule during the pandemic, as well as the concerns it will expand the number of studies that could be excluded for review. In response, an agency spokesperson said: "When final, this action will ensure that the regulatory science underlying EPA's actions are made available in a manner sufficient for independent validation. Science transparency does not weaken science, and does not endanger health, quite the contrary."

This article has been updated to paraphrase a quote.