10/24/2018 - EPA Mission Tracker

Limiting Expertise in EPA’s Review of the Air Quality Standards

This post is the second part in a series. For background information, see Part 1 and our Clean Law podcast with Janet McCabe, former Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air & Radiation (June 26, 2018).

EPA is further undermining the agency’s ability to receive expert scientific advice on the link between air pollution and public health.

First, the agency is excluding qualified scientists from the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC), the independent group charged by the Clean Air Act with providing EPA with scientific advice on air quality standards. On Oct. 10, 2018, Acting Administrator Wheeler appointed five new members to CASAC, dramatically changing the makeup of the committee. By the end of 2018, EPA replaced the entire seven-member panel, appointing some longtime anti-regulatory advocates to the panel. For example, one of the new CASAC members, Dr. Sabine Lange, wrote to CASAC in 2014 that the committee should not be so concerned about the health effects of ozone pollution because Americans do not spend much time outside.

Second, EPA disbanded the additional panel of experts it formed to review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for Particulate Matter (PM), leaving just the now re-constituted seven-member CASAC to cover this complicated scientific task. The additional panel was formed to assist with areas of the NAAQS review where CASAC members lack expertise. EPA has formed an auxiliary panel to assist CASAC for at least 30 years.

EPA provided little explanation for these significant changes. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to update the health-based NAAQS every five years – an ambitious task given the volume of scientific material to consider. EPA finalized the last PM NAAQS on December 14, 2012, meaning an update is already overdue. EPA is in the process of gathering and reviewing scientific information before making a policy determination about whether to retain or change the level of the PM NAAQS, with a target of finalizing that decision by late 2020. Conversations with EPA staff reveal that the initial literature review for the current review of the PM NAAQS identified around 300,000 scientific studies to evaluate for setting this standard. Of this number, nearly 3,000 from multiple disciplines were identified as significant and meriting consideration.

Before Oct. 10, 2018 EPA had the benefit of a CASAC PM Review Panel with 26 members chosen for their deep expertise in a wide variety of specialties. The panel is considering studies in epidemiology, atmospheric photochemistry, cellular biology, and other disciplines. Without scholars who understand these diverse fields, EPA’s scientific advisory panels will not be able to give sound scientific advice.

By disbanding this panel, Acting Administrator Wheeler is depriving EPA of the advice of highly qualified experts as the agency reviews many thousands of scientific studies. Some of the replacements Acting Administrator Wheeler picked have frequently used their scientific credentials to argue against environmental protections. In contrast to the numerous specialties represented on the disbanded panel, the new members of CASAC have experience only in risk analysis, medical psychology, toxicology, and environmental engineering. Only one panelist is a researcher, and he is also the only physician. In a policy arena notable for its reliance on epidemiology, there does not appear to be a single member of the new CASAC experienced in this field.

Even the Trump EPA’s handpicked science advisors have objected to Acting Administrator Wheeler’s action to disband the PM review panel. On December 10, 2018, three of the seven CASAC members offered public comments on EPA’s draft Integrated Science Assessment that called for reconvening the PM review panel to provide additional expertise. That letter came after a group of seventeen former members of CASAC and the ozone review panel released a letter dated November 26, 2018, to the CASAC Chair, Tony Cox, expressing significant concerns about changes to the makeup, expectations, and responsibilities of CASAC. The letter emphasizes that EPA’s changes to CASAC’s membership and the NAAQS review process undermine CASAC’s ability to provide up-to-date, thorough, and credible scientific advice.

The former CASAC members state that EPA is excluding highly-qualified scientists, both by applying the Pruitt-authored conflict-of-interest policy and by refusing to convene auxiliary expert panels for each pollutant-specific review. They go on to say that the accelerated schedule for NAAQS reviews would prevent even a fully competent CASAC from providing thorough and independent scientific advice.  Notably, Pruitt and Wheeler’s pick to head the CASAC, Tony Cox,  previously conducted oil industry-funded research in which he allowed the industry to edit his work before it was published.

Other changes by EPA also affect the NAAQS process. For more information, please see our other Mission Tracker posts, including:

This post was edited for clarity on Dec. 10, 2019.

Return to the Mission Tracker