EPA Pulls Public Documents Regarding Its Proposed Transparency Policy

Illustration for article titled EPA Pulls Public Documents Regarding Its Proposed Transparency Policy
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Internal emails that revealed the Environmental Protection Agency has been pursuing a plan to restrict the type of scientific research the agency uses to write environmental policy have been removed from an online portal that made the documents publicly accessible.

The emails, obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), were briefly hosted on FOIAOnline, a hub offered by the US government that allows the general public to file requests for and view documents from a number of federal agencies. The files from the EPA were first made accessible Tuesday, April 17th and were removed from the portal Friday, according to UCS.

The emails in question show communications between EPA staffers planning to implement a new policy that would “increase transparency” in the agency’s rulemaking process by requiring all data and methodology from studies cited in regulations to be made public. Critics of the plan argue that the policy would serve primarily to limit the types of studies that could be used to craft rules.

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Within the communications, it is also made apparent that the policy originated with Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Smith, a climate change denier who has regularly accused climate scientists of altering data, has pushed for legislation that proposed similar changes to the EPA’s policy-making process but has failed to gain much traction.

The Congressman met with EPA chief Scott Pruitt in early January. Just days after the meeting, the emails reveal, a staffer for Rep. Smith contacted the EPA. “It was great to see you last week and appreciate the Administrator’s time. Chairman Smith is very keen for our staff to get together to discuss further transparent science-based regulations at the EPA,” Smith aide Joe Brazauskas wrote to EPA congressional affairs staffer Aaron Ringel.

Ringel circulated the message through the EPA with a message that made clear the meeting between Pruitt and Smith was arranged to discuss a way to enact Smith’s failed bill without the going through the legislative process. “In short, this is in regards to his pitch that EPA internally implement the HONEST Act (no regulation can go into effect unless the scientific data is publicly available for review),” the email read.

In March, at a closed-door meeting held at the Koch brothers-funded Heritage Foundation, Pruitt announced his plan to pursue the supposed transparency effort.

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On Thursday, the EPA sent a policy proposal to the White House that would implement the supposed effort to “strengthen transparency” within the agency. Pending approval, which it is expected to receive, the policy could go into effect in the coming days or weeks.

Scientists concerned with the policy have warned that only considering studies with publicly available data will severely limit the type of information that the agency can use and will result in a much narrower and more incomplete understanding of evolving environmental issues.

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Dr. Ivan Oransky, co-founder the independent scientific journal monitoring blog Retraction Watch, told the New York Times in March that “Data [Pruitt] doesn’t like will get disqualified.”

In an op-ed published in the Hill, Yogin Kothari, a representative for the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, wrote that the new policy could mean “many of studies that are the foundation of our entire understanding of the public health impacts of pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals would be sidelined and ignored.” He noted many studies rely on private medical information that cannot be made public. Additionally, studies of people exposed to certain chemicals cannot ethically be replicated to confirm results.

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Without the emails that show the process and communications that took place behind the scenes in crafting the policy, the public is left in the dark as to how Pruitt’s EPA arrived at its new transparency practices.

Kothari wrote in a blog post that the EPA informed him and his colleagues the emails were removed because of concerns about “privacy information” and “attorney-client communication.” Kothari argued that all communications that could be considered private or contain privileged information were removed before being made available to the public.

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UCS saved the documents before they were removed from FOIAOnline and has made them available for the public to view.

[Sunlight Foundation, Union of Concerned Scientists, E&E News, The New York Times]

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Nights and weekends editor, Gizmodo

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Welcome to the Trump administration.