When he wasn’t busy searching for Ritz Carlton lotion, former Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt also gutted the agency’s science advisory boards. But after forcing out impartial scientists and installing people who literally denied air pollution’s adverse impacts on public health, the agency is reversing course under new Administrator Michael Regan.
The agency announced the move on Wednesday, saying it was going to change course on what it politely called “deficiencies” in the previous administration’s approach to getting impartial expert advice. Those deficiencies include clearing out any form of impartial advice through a number of directives around who could serve on the boards of outside experts that inform the agency’s decision-making and the very existence of some of those boards.
Under Pruitt, the agency created a rule where scientists who received grant money from the EPA would no longer be allowed to serve boards, including the Science Advisory Board and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, both of which play a role in helping the EPA set its agenda and standards for pollutants. While the directive was ostensibly about transparency and conflict of interest, what it served to do was disqualify a whole host of public health experts from advising the agency. Scientists who had served in their roles just fine for years were booted. Many of their replacements had ties to the very industries they were supposed to be advising the agency about. (In other words, they had an actual conflict of interest.)
In addition, a number of the replacement experts held conspiratorial beliefs completely outside of mainstream science. Among them were Michael Honeycutt, the head of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division, who said in 2012 that inhaling particulate matter “makes you live longer,” according to some research (the vast, vast, vast majority of the research indicates the exact opposite). Tony Cox, a statistician who was installed to lead the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, said in 2015 Congressional testimony, that reducing smog wouldn’t help public health (which again, is wrong).
This isn’t just about damning old quotes, though. In a February 2020 committee meeting, Cox said the EPA’s own compendium of research on air pollution and health as “not trustworthy.” This type of quackery gave cover to the EPA to pass all sorts of rules rolling back public health protections and pollution standards or not updating ones that did exist. Under Pruitt, the EPA also shuttered three other boards, further ensuring the agency only heard from a small cadre of outside advisors.
Now, the agency is set to undo the damage to scientific integrity. Citing the “irregularities” with which the advisors were appointed, Regan ordered them all gone. The agency said it would “reconstitute, restore and create new committees to better address EPA priorities, and to augment both the SAB and CASAC with specialized panels.” It also put out a call for new nominees to fill those boards out. And it announced six committees, which include environmental justice and climate science, two areas that were sorely neglected under the Trump administration. Both were added, according to an agency spokesperson, to reflect a renewed focus on these topics at EPA.” Another committee focused on economics is being re-formed after being disbanded under Pruitt.
It will likely have a slew of interest in those positions. The EPA board members who Pruitt kicked out have been working diligently in exile. That includes meeting and putting together reports using the best available science.
Revoking the Pruitt rule on who can serve on the committees and reconstituting them with experts not beholden to industries is a step to restoring scientific integrity at the agency, and fits with a pattern unfolding not just at EPA but across the federal government. Earlier this month, the agency restored its climate change website banished by Pruitt. In a separate announcement this week, the Biden administration said it would investigate how the Trump administration attacked science. On Wednesday, it also unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which appears to be teed up to rely on actual science.
Updated, 3/31/21. 4:04 p.m.: This post includes more details from the EPA, including that two of the advisory committees are new additions.