The EPA’s New Proposal: Transparency or Trojan Horse?

Samantha Liu '22

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The Environmental Protection Agency recently unfolded its new proposal to limit the research the government can use in public health regulations. Titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, this measure requires that scientists disclose their raw data before the agency can use their study. It also allows the E.P.A. to retract current laws who lack this public scientific backing. 

The Trump administration believes the proposal is a step towards greater transparency, where the public can understand the motivations behind new legislative measures and regulations. Furthermore, E.P.A. administrator and chief advocate Andrew Wheeler argues that if other groups and scientists can review the academic processes used, the agency can ensure more thorough and valid legislation. “Transparency, reproducibility, and application of current scientific knowledge are paramount to providing the foundation required for sound regulations,” wrote the American Chemistry Council in support of Wheeler [1]. 

However, the proposal was met with greater controversy by various scientific and medical groups. Current major public health studies base their findings on personal information from thousands of individuals, all kept private under confidentiality clauses. Pruitt’s proposal would illegitimatize these studies unless the researchers publish their raw data, breaking all confidentiality agreements. The largest of these is the 1993 Harvard University Six Cities study, which involved tracking the private medical histories of over 22,000. The study found a definitive link between air pollution and mortality rates, and today is one of the forefront reasons for federal clean air laws. But under the new motion, it may be deemed inadmissible, and the progressive legislation it championed would be retracted. The same story may be true for dozens of public health research that allude to the dangers of mercury in drinking water, smog, lead in paint, and other hazardous environmental toxins. 

Thus, skeptics claim the real reason for these new measures is to undermine the influence of science in regulations for clean air and water. Limited to a smaller pool of data, this would result in weaker protections for public health and the environment. Mr. Gallagher of the American Association for the Advancement of Science voices the opposition bluntly: “They didn’t like the regulation, so they tried to attack the science underlying the regulation. It has become very clear to us that this is not about science. This is a means to an end. [2]” 

The measure was first proposed one year ago by Scott Pruitt, appointed to head the E.P.A. by President Trump, but scrapped due to the severe backlash. Pruitt, no stranger to conflict with the scientific community, issued a controversial statement that he does not believe in the threat of greenhouse gases to the environment. In October 2018, he blocked three of the agency’s scientists from the Rhode Island conference where they were to discuss climate change. After resigning over multiple ethics investigations, he was succeeded by Andrew Wheeler. Former attorney and coal lobbyist, he reintroduced Pruitt’s proposal, this time determined to push through. His dedication to rolling back Obama’s major legislation once again left scientists in frustration as they realized Wheeler was to be equally aggressive as Pruitt. 

The proposal is still in the works, though the administration hopes to finalize the measure by 2020. But with the mounting protests of scientists, physicians, and public welfare groups, its path ahead seems difficult, if not futile. 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/11/climate/epa-science-trump.html?te=1&nl=evening- briefing&emc=edit_ne_20191111?campaign_id=57&instance_id=13786&segment_id=18708&user_id=82654d7ab51a5829c3268342e43c766d&regi_id=90650132

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/more-than-20-states-district-of-columbia-sue-epa-over- emissions-standards-11573847669