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After Pruitt Bars Scientists with EPA Grants from Advisory Committees, Carper and Whitehouse Highlight Concerns with New EPA Appointees’ Conflicts of Interest

EPA document shows public commenters warned EPA officials that two Advisory Committee Appointees had potential financial conflicts of interest and a potential lack of necessary expertise

Jan 09 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Environment and Public Work Committee, and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) questioned Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt on his appointment of two advisors to serve on EPA’s Federal Advisory Committees even after public commenters warned that Drs. Louis Anthony (Tony) Cox, Jr., a researcher for the petroleum industry, and S. Stanley Young, a researcher for the pharmaceutical and petroleum industry, may have financial conflicts of interest, may risk an appearance of impartiality and may lack the scientific expertise necessary to serve. These appointments were made days after EPA began excluding qualified scientists who have received EPA funding from the agency’s nonpartisan scientific advisory committees, citing conflicts of interest.

The senators’ letter to EPA comes after Senator Carper received a redacted document in December, titled “Executive Briefing Summary”, as part of EPA’s response to his May inquiry on EPA’s abrupt dismissal of more than a dozen scientists from one of EPA’s scientific boards. The two-page document, relayed to agency decision-makers, warned of the potential for conflicts of interest for two recent advisory committee appointees.

The senators wrote, “We are concerned that some of the newly-appointed members of these nonpartisan scientific advisory committees and boards may have financial and ethical conflicts of interests.  In addition, some of these individuals may not possess the appropriate level of scientific expertise or credentials. This underscores our concern that your actions to replace many highly-qualified members of these committees—including the unprecedented action to remove any scientist who was a recipient of EPA grants from eligibility—has led to Federal Advisory Committees that are not balanced in viewpoints, and to the appointment of committee members who are either not qualified or not impartial. This approach undermines the process of providing sound, science-based advice that EPA can use as a basis for environmental regulations that are aimed at protecting human health and the environment.”

In July, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) accepted a request from Senators Carper and Whitehouse to review EPA’s process for selecting federal advisory committee members after EPA abruptly dismissed scientists from more than a dozen advisory positions. The EPA is home to 23 scientific advisory committees, which advise the agency on environmental science, public health, safety and other subjects central to the EPA’s work. Federal law requires the committees to remain balanced in the viewpoints they represent and functions they perform. 

The text of the letter to Administrator Pruitt can be found below and in PDF form here.

January 9, 2018

Dear Administrator Pruitt:

We write to request information about the process used to select members for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) 23 Federal Advisory Committees. As you know, these Committees were established to advise the agency on environmental science, public health, safety, and other subjects central to the EPA’s work. We are concerned that some of the newly-appointed members of these nonpartisan scientific advisory committees and boards may have financial and ethical conflicts of interests.  In addition, some of these individuals may not possess the appropriate level of scientific expertise or credentials. This underscores our concern that your actions to replace many highly-qualified members of these committees—including the unprecedented action to remove any scientist who was a recipient of EPA grants from eligibility—has led to Federal Advisory Committees that are not balanced in viewpoints, and to the appointment of committee members who are either not qualified or not impartial. This approach undermines the process of providing sound, science-based advice that EPA can use as a basis for environmental regulations that are aimed at protecting human health and the environment.

On May 9, 2017, one of us (Ranking Member Carper) sent you a letter requesting information about the EPA’s dismissal of 12 scientists from its Board of Scientific Counselors. Included in your response to that request was a two-page redacted document titled “Executive Briefing Summary” which summarizes public commenters’ concerns about several candidates the EPA ultimately appointed to some of its Federal Advisory Committees (attached).

Specifically, it appears that public commenters warned that Drs. Louis Anthony (Tony) Cox, Jr. (a researcher for the petroleum industry) and S. Stanley Young (a researcher for the pharmaceutical and petroleum industry) may have financial conflicts of interest, may risk an appearance of impartiality, and may lack the scientific expertise necessary to serve on one or more Federal Advisory Committees. According to this “Executive Briefing Summary” document, these concerns were relayed to agency decision-makers, but it is unclear what steps were taken by EPA to address any of these concerns. On November 3, 2017, Dr. Cox was named Chair of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board and Dr. Young was named to serve on the Scientific Advisory Board.

The “Executive Briefing Summary” document additionally references concerns that the list of nominated candidates includes candidates who are not physicians or National Academy of Sciences members—contrary to the Federal Register Notice solicitation. Finally, despite the references in the “Executive Briefing Summary” document that describe the input EPA received as “public comments,” the comments EPA received were not posted publicly, making it difficult to determine what informed the EPA’s selection of Federal Advisory Committee members and how the concerns submitted to EPA by the public were resolved.

So that we can understand more about the process that was used to nominate and select EPA’s advisory committee members, we ask that you provide responses to the following requests for information:

  1. For Drs. Louis Anthony (Tony) Cox, Jr. and S. Stanley Young, please provide all documents received or obtained by EPA (including emails, comments, memos, white papers, meeting minutes and correspondence) that are related to their appointments to any EPA Federal Advisory Committee.
  1. For Drs. Louis Anthony (Tony) Cox, Jr. and S. Stanley Young, please explain what specific steps were taken to address potential conflicts of interest, appearance of impartiality, lack of scientific expertise, and lack of scientific credentials. Please provide copies of all documents (including emails, comments, memos, white papers, meeting minutes and correspondence) memorializing these steps.
  1. For each other individual nominated in 2017 to serve on a Federal Advisory Committee at the EPA, please provide copies of all documents (including emails, comments, memos, white papers, meeting minutes and correspondence) written or received by EPA that are related to potential conflicts of interest, lack of impartiality, or lack of scientific expertise or credentials. Your response should include all documents received from the public and/or internally before, during, and after the public comment period, as well as all documents relating to summaries of public comments, concerns about nominees, recommendations about how to proceed, and the ultimate decision on each nominee. Further, for each nominee who was ultimately appointed to serve on an EPA advisory committee or board, please explain and document the specific steps that were taken to address potential conflicts of interest, appearance of impartiality, or lack of scientific expertise or credentials.
  1. For each nominee who was chosen in 2017 to serve on a Federal Advisory Committee, please provide copies of any Ethics Agreements, financial disclosure forms, or Ethics Training certificates.
  1. Why did EPA decide not to publish the public comments about nominees to serve on EPA’s advisory boards or committees, particularly in light of the presumption of openness with which the federal government approaches non-confidential agency information?

Thank you very much for your attention to this important matter. Please provide your response no later than January 30, 2018.

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