WASHINGTON – President Trump’s environmental protection agency was rushing to fulfill one of its final regulatory priorities to keep the establishment of air and water pollution controls well into the future when a senior scientist tried to hobble them.
Thomas Sinks ran the EPA’s science advisory office and later managed the agency’s rules and data relating to research involving individuals. Before retiring in September, he decided to make a bubbly official statement that the pending rule requiring the agency to ignore or downgrade medical research that does not reveal its raw data would put America’s public health at risk.
“If this rule were finalized, it would create chaos,” said Dr. Sinks in an interview in which he confirmed that he wrote the New York Times statement. “I thought that would lead to a train accident and I would have to report.”
Two months before the end of the Trump administration, EPA staff are in a bureaucratic battle with the agency’s political leaders where they started. But now that the Biden administration is on the horizon, they are encouraged to obstruct Mr Trump’s goals and do so more openly.
Submitting a “dissenting scientific opinion” is an unusual step; it signals that Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s administrator, and his politically appointed deputies have not listened to the objections of professional researchers in developing the regulation. What is even more critical is that Dr. Sink’s dissent provides Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s EPA administrator with a powerful weapon to overturn so-called “Secret Science” policies by including the criticism as part of the official Trump administrative protocol of the new rule.
EPA Careers also quietly emailed the results of a new study this month which concluded that the owners of half a million diesel pickups had illegally removed their emissions control technology, which is to be led to a huge increase in air pollution. And some senior EPO officials have held talks with the president-elect’s transition team while they waited for Mr. Trump to officially approve the official start of the presidential change, two agency officials admitted.
Current and former EPA staff and advisors on the verge of the transition said Mr Biden’s team has focused on preparing a swift assault on the Trump administration’s deregulatory legacy and air and water protection and control of the Restore methane emissions.
“They are laser-focused on what I call the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ approach that is bringing the agency back together,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator who served on the Obama administration.
The transition team is particularly focused on renewed efforts to combat climate change, which the Trump administration put down and ridiculed by Mr. Wheeler as merely a “sign of virtue” abroad. There are also plans to revise Scientific Advisory Boards, Mr Wheeler and his predecessor Scott Pruitt had stacked themselves with private industry allies and rid themselves of many academic scholars.
“They seem very focused on what it takes to get things going again,” said Chris Zarba, former director of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, adding, “I think they will do a full reset.”
Against these efforts is Mr. Wheeler, who has a long list of priorities that aides and confidants say they want to finalize before the day of inauguration on January 20th. He has also legally maneuvered to put up time-consuming hurdles that Mr Biden will have to clear in order to wind down some Trump administrative policies.
At the top of Mr. Wheeler’s to-do list is completing the science rule officially known as “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science”.
Among them, the agency would have to reject or attach less weight to scientific studies that do not make all of their raw data available to the public. According to Wheeler, the opponents usually prefer that official decisions are made in “a back room, a room literally filled with smoke”.
However, thousands of medical and scientific organizations say the plan would affect the EPA’s ability to create new air and water protection, as people who participate in epidemiological or long-term health studies that examine exposure to toxins tend to be Participate only if their personal health information is kept private.
The EPA under Mr. Wheeler has argued that it can put in place privacy measures to protect personal information like home addresses and medical records. Dr. However, Sinks, who was the agency’s only scientist to work on setting up this data security, said the agency lacks the technical expertise and funding to be successful.
“Research on human subjects is the most predictive data for determining the effects of environmental exposure on human health,” wrote Dr. Sinks, adding, “Any rule or guidance that interferes with or removes high-quality research from consideration in rule creation leads to poorly developed rules.”
Thomas A. Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who served as EPA scientific advisor to the Obama administration, was amazed at Dr. Sinks dissent.
“It speaks volumes about the failure of the process and the failure of the government to listen not only to this one person but to the broader academic leadership in the United States,” he said. Mr. Burke called the rule “a very thinly veiled dream rule for polluters”.
James Hewitt, an EPA spokesman, said in a statement that Dr. Sinks are “irrelevant”. He accused Dr. Sinks, without providing evidence, for failing to follow the Agency’s “Protocol for raising concern,” and also said Dr. Sinks did not read the latest draft of the rule before submitting his dissent. Nor did Mr. Hewitt explain why such a senior professional scientist was not given the final draft of the rule.
“The purpose of the science transparency rule is to codify internal procedural requirements as the EPA will consider the availability of data on which it will rely in developing its final key regulatory and influential scientific information,” said Hewitt.
Mr. Wheeler has also evaded a promise he made to the EPA Inspector General in these past few months to address allegations made by more than 250 employees of political interference with science under the Trump administration.
Mr. Wheeler had agreed to determine the causes of concern about a culture of disregard for scientific integrity and the “tone at the top” of the agency by September 30th. He didn’t do this.
Instead, he issued a memo in November reiterating the agency’s support for its 2012 scientific integrity policy. But this document has also been watered down. The final version eliminated the language that ensured that science would take place “without political interference, coercion from scientists, or consideration of the implications of risk management,” according to a New York Times-reviewed document of amendments.
Mr Hewitt said in a statement that the memo did not detract from the underlying policy of scientific integrity.
Commenting on Mr. Wheeler’s broader agenda for the next two months, he said, “The EPA is continuing this government’s commitment to significant environmental advancement advance our regulatory reform agenda. “
The EPA is also expected to establish a regulation on industrial soot pollution linked to respiratory diseases, including those caused by the coronavirus, in the coming weeks. The rule is expected to put into effect a 2012 standard for fine soot from chimneys and tailpipes, known as PM 2.5, ignoring EPA’s own scientists who wrote last year that the existing rule resulted in approximately 45,000 deaths This aggravation could save about 10,000 of these lives due to respiratory disease each year.
In April, a study published by researchers at Harvard linked long-term soot exposure and the Covid-19 death rate. The study found that a person who lived for decades in a district with a high percentage of particulate matter was 15 percent more likely to die from the coronavirus than a person in a region with one unit less particulate matter.
And last month, the agency passed a rule that introduces a lengthy new legal process to overturn or withdraw certain guidelines, known as “guides,” which instruct federal agencies on the details of how law should be enforced.
Such guides can give an administration permission to interpret laws to advance their political agenda. For example, during the Trump administration, the EPA released a guidance document that allows oil and gas companies to release flares from their wells for up to 15 minutes at a time before regulations apply – a process that releases methane, a powerful greenhouse to warm the planet gas.
Another guidance document allows polluting companies with several neighboring polluting buildings in the same location, e.g. For example, power plants and factories report each building as a smaller individual pollution source, rather than reporting the total pollution level of the entire site. This could allow polluters to avoid pollution control requirements that would be triggered by reporting the greater amount of pollution attributed to the larger site.
These types of documents are not legally binding, but are considered an official guideline by a government agency until formally withdrawn or changed. Under the new guideline document rule, the EPA would have to officially issue a new regulation to withdraw the guidelines – a lengthy legal process that could take months or even years, which means that these Trump guidelines will remain the official guidelines of the US until finalized Biden administration.
Jody Freeman, professor of environmental law at Harvard and a former advisor to the Obama administration, called the rule a “small IED” that referred to an improvised explosive device or a roadside bomb to slow down a Biden administration’s plans, Mr. Trump’s rules.
“Shenanigans like these are waiting for the Biden team,” she said.
Coral Davenport contributed to the coverage.