10/24/2018 - EPA Mission Tracker

Subverting the Process of Setting Health-Based Air Quality Standards: Part 2

by EELP Staff

In its latest two-step, the EPA once again is deliberately narrowing the frame through which it obtains scientific analysis of 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 the EPA with scientific advice on air quality standards. Second, the EPA disbanded the additional panel of experts it had formed to review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for Particulate Matter, leaving just the now re-constituted seven-member main CASAC to cover a Herculean scientific task.

We have written previously about how the EPA is subverting the process of setting health-based air quality standards, and have posted in our Clean Law podcast an interview with Janet McCabe, former Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air & Radiation further explaining the threat to that process. Even though Scott Pruitt is no longer leading the effort to dismantle the EPA from within, his successor Andrew Wheeler is carrying out Pruitt’s plan.

The Pruitt/Wheeler EPA’s efforts to ignore particulate matter science is covered in our series on Changing What Science the EPA Can Consider, and policy changes designed to exclude many leading researchers from advising the EPA are discussed in our post on Removing Scientists from Advisory Panels. This is part and parcel of the same effort.

On Oct. 10, 2018, Acting Administrator Wheeler dramatically changed the makeup of the independent group charged by the Clean Air Act with providing the EPA with scientific advice on air quality standards, the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee or CASAC. Over the course of 2018, the entire seven member panel has been replaced, some of them by longtime anti-regulatory crusaders. One example of his chosen panelists’ anti-regulatory record: Dr. Sabine Lange wrote to the CASAC in 2014 that it should not be so concerned about the health effects of ozone pollution because Americans do not spend much time outside.

The EPA also disbanded the additional panel of experts it had formed to review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for Particulate Matter, leaving just the seven people on the now reconstituted main CASAC above to cover a Herculean scientific task. Previous NAAQS reviews have involved forming an additional panel of experts to help the chartered CASAC in areas where it lacks expertise. In fact, as Greenwire reports, this has been the EPA’s practice for at least 30 years.

The EPA provided little explanation for these changes, but they are significant. To start, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to update its health-based NAAQS every five years, an ambitious process given the volume of scientific material to consider. The last NAAQS for particulate matter was finalized on December 14, 2012, meaning an update is already overdue. The EPA is in the process of gathering and reviewing scientific information as a prelude to 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.

Studies of particulate matter’s effects on health are numerous and constantly evolving.

Conversations with EPA staff reveal that the initial literature review identified around 300,000 scientific studies to evaluate for setting this standard. Of this staggering number, nearly 3,000 were identified as significant and thus meriting consideration. These range across many disciplines and subdisciplines, and many are at the very leading edge of scientific understanding.

Before Oct. 10, 2018 the EPA had the benefit of a CASAC PM Review Panel with 26 members chosen for their deep expertise in a wide variety of specialties. To understand why this breadth of advice is needed, think about some examples of what this panel is considering: leading studies in epidemiology using vast data sets to tease out statistically significant patterns; cutting edge understanding of atmospheric photochemistry – how sunlight and microscopic particles react, change, and move; research into cellular-level biology that explains how various pollutants affect lung function; and much more. Without scholars who understand these diverse fields, the EPA’s scientific advisory panels will not be able to give sound scientific advice. Just take the first five of the recently dismissed 26 members in alphabetical order: they brought to the table experience in simulating aerosol microphysical processes and the interactions between cloud condensation and ultrafine particles, methods of measuring the magnitude of actual human exposure to pollutants, research into monitoring and measurement techniques, a history of conducting controlled studies of the effects of exposure to particle pollutants on respiratory tract fluid linings, and familiarity with the economic valuation of resources that are not traded in markets. These skills and many others are not being replaced by the new panel.

By disbanding this panel, Acting Administrator Wheeler is depriving the EPA of the advice of a deep roster of highly qualified experts as the agency reviews many thousands of leading studies. The replacements Wheeler has picked for the main CASAC may themselves be distinguished scientists, but some are distinguished in part for using their scientific credentials to argue against environmental protections. In contrast to the numerous expert specialties represented by the 26 members on the disbanded panel, they have experience only in risk analysis, medical psychology, toxicology, and environmental engineering – subjects that barely scratch the surface of the range of expertise needed to advise the agency’s complex decision-making functions when reviewing the PM NAAQS. Only one panelist, for example, is a researcher, and he is also the only physician. In fact, in a policy arena notable for its reliance on epidemiology (as discussed in our posts on Curtailing High Quality Science), there does not appear to be a single member of the new CASAC experienced in this field.

Alongside the disbanding of the panel, the EPA released the draft Integrated Science Assessment for the PM NAAQS. This is a document that aims to summarize the state of the science to use as a basis for future regulatory efforts. This draft is 1881 pages long and the EPA intends to ask the CASAC for its “advice” in December of this year.

The result is yet another step towards results-oriented science. Acting Administrator Wheeler has found a way to handicap one of the most complex scientific undertakings in the federal government by dismissing more than two dozen leading experts and replacing them with a handful of anti-regulatory crusaders who will give him the non-answer he wants.

As was the case when Scott Pruitt took steps to limit or skew the scientific input available to the EPA, this is yet another change encouraged by conservative anti-science crusader Steve Milloy, and yet another topic where the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, Bill Wehrum, previously sued the agency on behalf of polluting clients.

Update: 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 the EPA’s draft Integrated Science Assessment that called for reconvening the PM review panel to provide additional expertise. That came after a group of seventeen former CASAC members and leading scientific researchers released a letter dated November 26, 2018, to the Trump EPA’s handpicked CASAC Chair, Tony Cox, expressing significant concerns about changes to the makeup, expectations, and responsibilities of the CASAC.  This letter had seven major findings and made thirty recommendations to address those findings.  The findings and recommendations make these key points: the way in which the Trump EPA has changed the CASAC’s membership and the NAAQS review process and schedule undermines the CASAC’s ability to provide up-to-date, thorough, and credible scientific advice.  In particular, these former CASAC members who have the experience to know what the CASAC’s job should be state that EPA is excluding qualified scientists, both by applying its entirely specious Pruitt-authored conflict-of-interest policy and by refusing to convene additional  pollutant-specific expert panels for each pollutant-specific review.  The expert authors further assert that the Trump EPA’s schedule for NAAQS reviews would prevent even a fully competent CASAC from providing thorough and independent scientific advice.  For more information, read the letter here (LINK). To make matters even worse, it has emerged that Pruitt and Wheeler’s pick to head the CASAC, Tony Cox, previously conducted “research” paid for by the oil industry where he allowed the industry to edit his work before it was published.

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