A government watchdog said Monday the Environmental Protection Agency did not follow its own guidelines when filling two key science advisory panels with fewer academic researchers and more industry voices.
The findings from the Government Accountability Office, published Monday at the request of several Senate Democrats, provide additional fodder for critics who say President Trump's deputies are trying to degrade the way EPA assesses scientific research. Both panels are part of the EPA and made up of scientists from outside the agency who advise it on the best science surrounding issues like air pollution, pesticides and hazardous waste.
The agency itself disputes the watchdog's findings, arguing in a letter submitted to the GAO that its way of choosing new panelists for the Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is “more rigorous” than under the EPA's old guidelines.
The GAO described a sharp decrease in the number of university researchers serving on the Science Advisory Board, which reviews the integrity of scientific information used by the EPA when writing rules, over the first 15 months of the Trump administration. The number of university researchers on the panel went from 36 in January 2017 to just 22 in March 2018. The panel had between 44 and 47 members during that period.
The decrease came as the number of researchers from consulting firms or from companies regulated by the agency went up, a fact that Democrats latched onto as more evidence the Trump adminisitration is overly influenced by polluting industries.
“After a careful investigation, the non-partisan GAO confirms what we’ve been critical of all along: The Trump Administration is violating its own rules by putting industry officials in charge of crucially important science advisory boards,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) led a group of Democrats in asking the GAO to investigate the agency's practices. “This is not a trivial issue, but a serious problem that has profound consequences for enforcement and regulatory actions across the agency.”
Among those who under Trump joined the Science Advisory Board are Brant Ulsh, a health physicist at M.H. Chew & Associates who has argued the EPA has overplayed the risk of small doses of radiation; and John Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville whose work critical of NASA's climate scientists has been often cited by so-called climate “skeptics.”
The watchdog agency found fewer "notable" changes to the composition of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.
That decrease in academics on the Science Advisory Board is due largely to a Trump administration policy barring scientists who get EPA grants from serving as advisers, according to Genna Reed, a science and policy analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“It's a pretty clear connection to draw,” she said. The ban, put in place by former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, drew praise from industry lobbying groups and condemnation from scientific organizations such as Reed's when it was announced in 2017.
According to the GAO, in the past agency staffers weighed in with written recommendations on who should be selected for these two boards. That part of the selection process was spelled out in one of the EPA's own handbooks.
But in the Trump administration, officials ignored those internal guidelines and chose advisers without much of a paper trail. Instead of written recommendations, EPA management instead requested briefings with staffers.
“That was our key finding: The EPA didn't follow this key step with these two committees,” said J. Alfredo Gomez, director of the GAO's natural resources and environment team.
In the past, EPA head Andrew Wheeler cast the panel appointments as an effort to gather scientific opinions from a diverse set of voices. But when selecting researchers for the Science Advisory Board, there is one region of the country the Trump administration seems to turn to frequently: the South.
At the start of the administration, about a quarter, or 28 percent, of the panel hailed from the generally conservative region, which spanned Delaware to Texas in the GAO's analysis. About 15 months later, Southerners constituted more than half of the board.
One of the newcomers is Michael Honeycutt, the top toxicologist in the state of Texas who in 2017 was chosen to chair the Science Advisory Board and who has accused the agency of “overstating” the risks associated with mercury, a toxic heavy metal that can cause brain damage.
In a letter commenting on a draft of the GAO report, the EPA urged the watchdog to delete from the final version the conclusion that EPA ignored its own rules when selecting members of the panels because it is within Wheeler's authority to set new guidance.
“EPA has already provided GAO its thorough explanation on their conclusion that the Agency did not follow its own policy — the assertion is incorrect and should be removed from the report,” EPA spokesman Michael Abboud wrote in an email Monday.
The GAO acknowledged Wheeler had that discretion, but ultimately recommended that the EPA follow the handbook's guidelines.
— Another agency is moving staff out of Washington: The Interior Department is planning to yank most of the Bureau of Land Management’s Washington-based employees out of the District and move them out West. Some top employees are set to be transferred to Grand Junction, Colo., and others will move to other cities, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Lisa Rein report.
The context: “The proposal to move roughly 300 employees from a key Interior Department agency — among them the majority of top managers — comes as Trump officials are forcibly reassigning career officials and upending operations across the federal government,” they write. “Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue finalized plans this summer to move about 550 jobs at two of his department’s scientific agencies from the nation’s capital to greater Kansas City. The White House is trying to abolish the Office of Personnel Management, the government’s human resources agency, and has threatened to furlough as many as 150 employees if Congress blocks it."
Two sides to the argument: In a statement supporting the move, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said the “problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve... Ninety-nine percent of the land the BLM manages is West of the Mississippi River, and so should be the BLM headquarters,” he added. Meanwhile, Steve Ellis, who retired as BLM’s deputy director in 2016 told Rein and Eilperin: “If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be in my playbook … It’s important for these agencies to have a meaningful footprint in D.C.”
Eilperin with more details:
Under the plan (I got additional details last night), Utah will get several dozen jobs, as will Nevada and Colorado. More than 80 percent of headquarters jobs will move West. https://t.co/rddUkHXdTY— Juliet Eilperin (@eilperin) July 16, 2019
— Tracking the deluge from Barry: There were rainfall totals reaching 15 inches in parts of Louisiana on Monday, as the impact of tropical depression Barry poured down on the state, though later than anticipated, The Post's Jason Samenow reports. “Since late last week, forecasters said Barry would be a drawn-out event, with heavy rain a threat lasting two to three days. But the worst was expected over the weekend, when meteorologists predicted tremendous amounts of rain in Louisiana. Rivers were forecast to surge to historic heights,” he writes.
Still, more rain is yet to come: “Dangerous, significant flash flooding is likely, especially across south-central Louisiana,” the National Weather Service wrote in a statement. Samenow adds the agency is predicting “five to eight inches more of rain in this area through the afternoon and rainfall rates as high as two to four inches per hour.”
— This climate scientist is also an evangelical Christian, and she’s trying to persuade skeptics: Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist, has found a way to talk to people about science by talking to them about faith, The Post’s Dan Zak writes in this profile of the Texas Tech University researcher. During a keynote address at the Citizens’ Climate Lobby conference in Washington, Hayhoe — who is also a lead author on the U.S. government’s latest National Climate Assessment — displayed an ability to communicate that seems “miraculous by the standards of modern climate politics: She can convert nonbelievers — or, to put it in her terms, make people realize that they’ve believed in the importance of this issue all along,” Zak writes. “She knows how to speak to oilmen, to Christians, to farmers and ranchers, having lived for years in Lubbock, Tex., with her pastor husband. She is a scientist who thinks that we’ve talked enough about science, that we need to talk more about matters of the heart.” “We humans have been given responsibility for every living thing on this planet, which includes each other,” she said at the conference. “We are called to tend the garden and be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us.”
— How extreme heat is changing sports: Scientists say the hottest places on the planet are getting hotter, faster. Las Vegas, for example, the location of an annual race called Running with the Devil, is the “fastest-warming city in the country and has seen an average temperature increase of nearly 6 degrees since 1970,” The Post’s Rick Maese reports in the latest piece in a series on how climate change is affecting the world of sports. “The Running with the Devil race, intentionally scheduled for extreme conditions, might not be an exact peek into the future, but it does highlight many of the challenges already confronting much of the sports world. How does heat affect performance? What dangers lurk on the outdoor courses and fields exposed to the summer sun? How does one stage a safe event in extreme conditions?”
— Man, it’s a hot one: Last month was the Earth’s hottest June on record, 1.7 degrees above the norm for the global average temperature for the month, according to data from NASA. “The month was punctuated by a severe heat wave that struck Western Europe in particular during the last week, with numerous all-time-hottest-temperature records falling in countries with centuries-old data sets,” The Post’s Jason Samenow and Andrew Freedman report. “NASA is the second institution to confirm that it was Earth’s hottest June, as the Copernicus Climate Change Service had already determined that June 2019 was the warmest such month on record for Europe and globally.”
— No word on what caused New York City’s blackout: Con Edison warned the city could see more power outages this summer after a weekend power failure left 73,000 residents in the dark. “We expect that there could be service outages — those things happen during heat waves,” the power company’s chief spokesman, Mike Clendenin, said in an interview with PIX 11, according to the New York Post. He also said there’s still no explanation for what caused the blackout. “We are very, very focused on examining exactly what transpired and caused that outage,” Clendenin said. ““There’s a lot of patience and poise that New Yorkers displayed during the outage itself. The same kind of patience and diligence is going to be needed as engineers and experts dive into the date and actually analyze how equipment tripped off, or what went wrong, that led to the large outage.”
Meanwhile, in Washington: "Power was cut off Monday night to as many as 7,000 homes and businesses in the District, many of them in Northeast, near Capitol Hill according to Pepco," The Post's Martin Weil reports. "The utility said it had issues with equipment at a substation in Northeast."
- The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of electricity delivery on Wednesday.
- The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions holds an event on “Scaling Your Renewable Energy Strategy” on Wednesday.
- The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing called “Electric Battery Production and Waste: Opportunities and Challenges” on Wednesday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power holds a hearing on Thursday.
- House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife holds a legislative hearing on Thursday.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Committee holds an open meeting on Thursday.
— From Post cartoonist Tom Toles: