The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

EPA scraps pair of air pollution science panels

The Trump administration’s decision is part of a wider plan to change the way the agency reviews science.

Emissions rise from Duke Energy's coal-fired power plant in Asheville, N.C., in September. (Charles Mostoller/Bloomberg News)

The Environmental Protection Agency moved this week to disband two outside panels of experts charged with advising the agency on limiting harmful emissions of soot and smog-forming pollutants.

The agency informed scientists advising the EPA on the health impacts of soot that their “service on the panel has concluded,” according to an email shared with The Washington Post. Experts being considered to sit on a separate board evaluating ground-level ozone also received an email from the EPA saying it will no longer form the panel, which had yet to meet. The EPA had asked for nominations in July.

The decision to dissolve the panels is part of a broader effort by the EPA’s leadership to change the way the agency conducts and assesses science. Those efforts include trying to limit what counts as health benefits when crafting air rules and incorporate into rulemaking only studies that make their underlying data public.

In the past, each panel had roughly two dozen researchers who reviewed the latest air pollution science and made recommendations on how to set new air standards for a specific pollutant the agency is legally obligated to regulate. These experts, who came from a variety of fields, often encouraged the EPA to impose tougher limits on the six pollutants for which it sets nationwide standards.

Now, under acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA has instead decided to let a seven-member group called the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) alone perform those assessments and make recommendations to the agency’s political leaders. Previously, CASAC and the now-scrapped panels worked together to craft findings.

While its decision to disband the outside panels is a break from past administrations, concentrating power in the smaller CASAC is legal, the agency said.

“Consistent with the Clean Air Act and CASAC’s charter, Acting Administrator Wheeler tasked the seven-member chartered CASAC to serve as the body to review key science assessments for the ongoing review of the particulate matter and ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards,” it said in a statement.

Environmentalists sharply criticized the decision as another instance of the Trump administration’s curtailing the use of science that contradicts the president’s pro-industry agenda. They argue that the committee’s small size, skewed composition and lack of expertise would make it nearly impossible to fully vet the vast body of pollution science related to public health.

“By removing science and scientists, they are making it easier for the administration to set a weaker standard” said Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

The EPA just selected five new members of the CASAC. Most of the committee’s members come from state or local governments in conservative parts of the country, including Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Utah, rather than from universities.

In a statement Wednesday, Wheeler praised the “highly qualified” group for having “a diverse set of backgrounds in fields like toxicology, engineering, medicine, ecology, and atmospheric science.”

But Christopher Zarba, who formerly directed the EPA office that coordinates with that and other scientific committees, said “there are fewer academics” than before. Researchers from academia, he said, “bring an essential science perspective to the review process.”

The lack of academics is consistent with past policy from Trump’s EPA. Last year, the agency barred academics who received EPA grants from serving on science panels. That effectively gave experts from industry and state governments more room to participate instead.

John Walke, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean air work, highlighted on Twitter the “alarming, outlier view” of one of those state officials appointed to the board.

Three years ago, Sabine Lange, a toxicologist who works for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, disputed a 2014 CASAC conclusion that short-term exposure to ozone was linked to higher mortality.

While the band of ozone high in the atmosphere protects people from harmful ultraviolet radiation, concentrations of the gas closer to the ground can cause respiratory problems. Lange wrote that the outdoor concentration of ozone “grossly overestimates” Americans' actual exposure because they spend little time outside.

The 20-member Particulate Matter Review Panel, which was disbanded Thursday, had spent the past few years working with the EPA on developing more stringent standards for soot emitted by cars, power plants and other sources. This microscopic pollution, which can become embedded in the bloodstream and airways, has been linked to heart and lung disease.

In April 2016, the EPA issued a draft proposal to tighten the national ambient air quality standards for particulate matter and gave it to the particulate matter panel to review. By the end of August 2016, the panel had endorsed the proposal and offered some suggestions “for strengthening and improving the document.” The agency has yet to propose new soot standards, which have not been updated since 2012.