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Government watchdog finds Trump EPA failed to follow its own rules while stocking key scientific panels with industry-backed members

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should follow its own rules designed to protect the independence and effectiveness of the agency’s scientific advisory committees, writes the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a report released today by U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). By ignoring the agency’s own rules, the Trump officials at the EPA installed industry scientists and consultants to help guide the EPA’s scientific decision making to favor polluting industries, Carper and Whitehouse note.  

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 Senator Carper.  “This is not a trivial issue, but a serious problem that has profound consequences for enforcement and regulatory actions across the agency.  Not only is EPA putting the interests of polluters over public health, but this report demonstrates once again how little this administration values basic science.”

This report shows that the Trump administration rigged influential advisory boards to favor its polluter backers.  In the process, they also slowed down the work of the committees, delaying key decisions on whether to regulate potentially dangerous environmental hazards,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “The GAO’s findings are yet another example Donald Trump handing the keys to Americans’ government to big industries that government is supposed to police.”

Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) joined Carper and Whitehouse to request the report. 

In 2017, the senators asked the GAO to examine the independence of the EPA’s 22 scientific advisory committees, which advise the agency on environmental science, public health, safety, and other subjects central to the EPA’s work.  Subsequently, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt barred scientists receiving EPA grants from serving on these committees and replaced many members with industry-backed scientists who have worked directly for corporations and industry groups the EPA is charged with regulating.  Pruitt’s directive established an obvious double standard that favors polluting industries over academic researchers.

In its report, the GAO finds that the EPA failed follow the rules in staffing two key advisory boards that have been at the center of significant controversy.  The “EPA did not follow a key step in its established process for appointing 20 members . . . to the [Science Advisory Board (SAB)] and [Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC)], which advise the agency on environmental regulatory matters, among other things,” the GAO concluded.   In addition, the GAO documented a significant change in the composition of the SAB and EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC).  According to the GAO, “[t]here was a notable decrease in the percentage of members affiliated with academic institutions” on these two boards. 

The Trump administration’s handling of BOSC has stirred major controversy.  Early in the Trump administration, the EPA announced it would not renew the terms of dozens of scientists on BOSC even though many of them would have served half as long as typical appointees.  No cause was given for their dismissal.  EPA’s notice to the scientists triggered resignations and the cancelation of five of BOSC’s subcommittee hearings scheduled for the fall of 2017 due to lack of membership.  “It effectively wipes out the BOSC and leaves it free for a complete reappointment,” BOSC Executive Chairwoman Deborah Swackhamer told the Washington Post.  The New York Times reported that EPA political staff also pressured Swackhamer to change her testimony before Congress about the termination of these scientists. 

The influential SAB has also been an area of concern.  The GAO report notes a marked decrease in the number of scientists affiliated with academic institutions on EPA advisory boards since the beginning of the Trump administration, giving way for industry scientists.  This pattern follows similar findings from other reviews of advisory board staffing.  According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Under the Obama administration, industry-affiliated scientists made up 40 percent of the Science Advisory Board, or 19 of its 47 members.  Under President Donald Trump, 68 percent of the board, 30 of its 44 current members, now has ties to industries.” 

Likewise, the CASAC has been a lightning rod. The litany of concerns with Trump administration staffing of the committee includes:

  • EPA career staff raising concerns that Dr. Louis Anthony Cox, Jr., a researcher for the petroleum industry nominated for his position by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had financial conflicts of interest, risked an appearance of impartiality, and lacked the scientific expertise necessary to serve on either the SAB or the CASAC. 
  • Evidence showing political appointee Richard Yamada intervened in the CASAC selection process to direct career staff to vet eight additional candidates not originally identified by EPA staff as the best qualified. 
  • EPA career staff concluding Dr. Larry Wolk had “no direct experience in health effects of air pollution,” among other things.
  • The EPA installing Dr. Sabine Lange from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Dr. Steven Packham from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.  
    • According to documents obtained by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, EPA career staff warned that Lange has “no direct experience serving on national scientific committees.” 
    • They also warned Lange may have a “possible issue with an appearance of a lack of impartiality” given her publications and presentation on standards for criteria pollutants and her employer’s well-established views and positions on various National Ambient Air Quality Standards. 
    • Lange has argued that lowering the smog health standard from 75 parts per billion to 70 “will not measurably impact public health,” has disputed that short-term exposure to smog pollution was linked to respiratory mortality and total mortality, and is considered by some to have “extreme” views regarding the harmfulness of ozone (smog) pollution and the need for protective health standards.
    • Packham presented a poster about air quality and outdoor exercise with the conclusion being that positive effects of exercise outweigh risks of exposure to air pollution. 
    • Packham has also said that individuals can generally deal with increased air pollution, and that while such pollution “can take years off your life” you “don’t drop dead.”

In November 2018, Senators Carper and Whitehouse led a group of senators in a letter Mr. Wheeler outlining these and other various concerns and demanding documents related to EPA’s abrupt dismissal of scientists from advisory committees.

The GAO report is available online here.