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EPA dismisses dozens of key science advisers picked under Trump

The Biden administration says it needs to restore trust in the agency by ‘resetting’ membership on two key science advisory panels.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan is purging two scientific advisory committees of outside experts appointed by President Donald Trump. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan will purge more than 40 outside experts appointed under President Donald Trump from two key advisory panels, a move he says will help restore the role of science at the agency and reduce the heavy influence of industry over environmental regulations.

The unusual decision, announced Wednesday, will sweep away outside researchers picked under the previous administration whose expert advice helped the agency craft regulations related to air pollution, the oil-and-gas extraction method known as fracking and other issues.

Critics say that, under Trump, membership of the two panels — the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) — tilted too heavily in favor of regulated industries and that their positions sometimes contradicted scientific consensus.

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The Biden administration said the move is one of several to reestablish scientific integrity across the federal government after what it characterizes as a concerted effort under the previous president to sideline or interfere with research on climate change, the novel coronavirus and other issues.

But former Republican administration officials accused the Biden team of hypocrisy, saying it is undermining, rather than restoring, confidence in the agency by kicking out those with contrary views.

“This seems pretty ham-handed to me,” said Jeff Holmstead, who led the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under George W. Bush and is now a partner at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell. “It’s a mistake in terms of building trust in the agency.”

The advisory boards, created by Congress, are designed to provide federal policymakers with the best advice from experts from a range of backgrounds. Members typically serve three-year terms. Their recommendations, though not binding, carry weight inside the agency.

“Resetting these two scientific advisory committees will ensure the agency receives the best possible scientific insight to support our work to protect human health and the environment,” Regan said in a statement.

Environmental advocates cheered the decision, saying that remaking the composition of the panels is necessary after the Trump administration illegally barred academics who received EPA grants from serving on them. The administration had argued that scientists who received research funding would not be impartial in their advice. But environmental and public health advocates, along with some former career officials within the agency, said the policy effectively elevated experts from industry while muzzling independent scientists.

The Trump administration ended up rescinding the restriction on grant recipients after being ordered to do so last year by a federal court. But it didn’t change any of its appointments after the ruling.

“It’s absolutely warranted,” Christopher Zarba, a retired EPA employee who directed the office that coordinates with scientific committees, said of the newly announced shake-up. “Lots and lots of the best people were excluded from being considered.”

He added that none of the people picked by Trump’s EPA chiefs, Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, were individually unqualified to serve. “However, the mix of people did not accurately represent mainstream science,” he said.

For example, Louis Anthony “Tony” Cox, who was tapped by Pruitt in 2017 to lead the advisory panel on air pollution, is a consultant who has worked for several government agencies but also for the oil, coal, pork and chemical industries. Cox dismissed the EPA’s methods for tabulating the public health benefits of smog regulations as “unreliable, logically unsound, and inappropriate.” That position distressed many air pollution scientists, and two published a paper in the journal Science that warned that Cox wanted to “fundamentally change the EPA’s process for scientific assessment.”

Cox declined to comment on his removal from the board, only saying by email: “I will be pleased if the new CASAC and SAB continue to increase the use of sound science and statistics in deliberations on how best to protect public health.”

The EPA is calling for new applications for the two panels. Nick Conger, an EPA spokesman, said advisers dropped from the committees are “eligible and encouraged to reapply” if they choose. Normally, the agency would have asked for new applications for a handful of the positions later this year.

John D. Graham, the ousted chair of the Science Advisory Board, said he does not plan to seek to return to the panel “because I respectfully protest the entire process that Administrator Regan has concocted.” He agreed Pruitt should not have banned grant recipients from serving on the panels but said Regan is going too far in making a correction.

“We have an EPA administrator interested in receiving scientific advice only from those scientists that he has personally appointed,” added Graham, who ran the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under George W. Bush.

The action Wednesday is one of several steps Regan says are necessary to rebuild the scientific integrity of the EPA and restore staff morale. It comes as the White House this week launched a government-wide assessment of past political interference in science.

Regan recently, for instance, revived an EPA webpage on climate change deleted during Trump’s first weeks in office. And in a memo to staff last week, he said the agency is reviewing policies that impeded science and is encouraging career employees to “bring any items of concern” to the attention of scientific integrity officials as they review Trump-era actions.

“When politics drives science rather than science informing policy,” Regan wrote to staff, “we are more likely to make policy choices that sacrifice the health of the most vulnerable among us.”

On the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, Trump-picked members advised the EPA to keep the standards for ozone at the current level, even as public-health experts outside the agency argued that they should be tightened to help protect poor and minority communities. The agency followed the committee’s advice and declined to issue stricter standards for the smog-forming pollutant, which has been linked to asthma and lung disease.

Vice President Harris swore in Michael Regan as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator in a brief ceremony on March 17. (Video: The Washington Post)

The clean air panel, meanwhile, was split on whether to recommend tougher rules for particulate matter, another pollutant emitted by power plants and cars. The agency ultimately decided last year against ratcheting up the rules, even as evidence accumulated that soot raised the risk of dying of covid-19.

At times, the boards did push back against the Trump administration, such as when the Science Advisory Board determined that a major repeal of a water pollution rule did “not incorporate best available science.”

In a recent interview, Regan suggested that the agency may revisit those decisions on acceptable pollution levels. “We want to take a close look at ozone,” he said. “We want to take a look at all the NAAQS [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] that we believe are questionable.”

Genna Reed, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group, said that reconstituting the panel will aid in any effort to bolster of air quality standards.

“It only makes sense for the agency to go back to the drawing board,” she said.