Last-Minute Bid to Ditch Science by Trump EPA Blocked by Federal Judge

A federal judge in Montana said Donald Trump’s EPA failed to demonstrate why an eleventh-hour rule barring the use of scientific studies to inform agency decisions needed to be implemented immediately.

The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington (Courthouse News photo / Jack Rodgers)

(CN) — A federal judge in Montana ruled the Trump administration could not issue a last-minute regulation that restricts the EPA’s use of science when making policy decisions.

In the ruling issued late Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris found in favor of a coalition of conservation groups who sued the EPA over the last-minute passage of a rule relating to science-based policy that bypassed the required 30-day public notice.

“EPA did not provide good cause to exempt the final rule from the APA’s 30-day notice requirement,” Morris wrote in the 31-page ruling, referring to the acronym for the Administrative Procedure Act. “EPA’s decision to make the final rule immediately effective on publication was ‘arbitrary, capricious’ and ‘otherwise not in accordance with law.’”

In 2018, under the direction of EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the agency proposed a new rule that would prevent the agency from using scientific studies to make decisions when the underlying data was not publicly available. 

Wheeler and others said the rule was to increase transparency around the scientific rationale for certain decisions. But public health advocates argued a full suite of decisions were based on data subjected to various privacy rules like HIPAA. 

“Privacy laws are trying to protect people from these types of disclosures,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “If this law were passed you couldn’t use a suite of studies, even if they’re peer-reviewed.”

Scientists, particularly those involved with public health, often rely on the private health information of individuals to draw conclusions about the impacts of air particulate matter, or contaminants in water, on human health. If the last-minute decision were allowed to take hold, it would preclude a raft of public health studies from being considered by the EPA. 

“The Trump administration worked on this rule for two and half years and they failed to get it done and then on the way out the door they tried to pull a fast one,” Hedges said. “It was a parting shot and a cheap shot.”

It was also a long shot. 

The Trump administration had argued passing the last-minute regulation was necessary for emergency reasons, including the need to address what the EPA characterized as a “crisis of confidence” in the agency’s science. 

It failed to persuade Morris.

“EPA failed to describe the crisis of ‘confidence’ it sought to address,” Morris wrote. “EPA failed to show a need for urgent implementation when it took more than two-and-one-half years to finalize this regulation.”

While common for outgoing presidential administrations to pass so-called midnight regulations on their way out the door, like the Trump administration’s overall environmental rollback effort, it has a poor record of withstanding court challenges. 

The EPA’s failure to publish the rule on an accelerated timeframe means the Biden administration will determine the ultimate fate of the law. 

“The Biden administration has already called this rule out for review,” Hedges said. 

There is also a court case pending in a federal court in New York, meaning the courts may ultimately rule against the legal rationale of the rule. Such a ruling would save the Biden administration the effort required to reverse the rulemaking process. 

Either way, it is highly unlikely the proposed rule will guide policymaking in the near future, Hedges said. 

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