New Health Study Hurdles Put in Place as Final Bow for Trump EPA

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

WASHINGTON (CN) — Tying a bow on four years of deregulation, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency finalized a transparency rule Tuesday that will exclude the anonymized data long instrumental in curbing pollution.

Among conservationists and even from within the EPA, the new rule’s demand for raw data has spurred criticism.

The EPA’s Science Advisory Board warned in April that this policy could “reduce scientific integrity” at the EPA. Chris Zarba, a former director of the this board, who retired in 2018 after roughly 40 years at the agency told the Washington Post Monday the rule was not in the best interest of the agency.

“It sounds good on the surface. But this is a bold attempt to get science out of the way so special interests can do what they want,” he told the Post.

On paper, the rule says that any EPA determinations on the danger of air pollutants, toxic chemicals or other agents only involve studies that release their raw data.

In the past, however, large-scale public health studies with anonymized data have been the catalysts behind EPA rules surrounding toxic chemical and air pollutants. 

But there is a good reason why studies rely on anonymized data when it comes to protecting endangered species from pollutants, Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a call Tuesday.

“One reason is because many of these species are very, very vulnerable to poaching and are illegally killed,” Hartl said. “And if you release raw data about some of them you actually put them at greater risk of extinction.”

Hartl pointed to certain rare species of butterfly as an example of how the EPA’s shift on data could be harmful.

“There are a lot of unscrupulous actors who would like to have butterflies in their private collections,” Hartl said. “And butterflies are often very, very vulnerable to insecticides,” Hartl said. “So this rule basically says unless we subject the butterflies to basically the incredible risk of being poached and collected illegally, we will ignore all of these impacts to these butterflies from pesticides.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler meanwhile defended the new rule Monday in The Wall Street Journal.

“If the American people are to be regulated by interpretation of these scientific studies, they deserve to scrutinize the data as part of the scientific process and American self-government,” the former coal industry lobbyist wrote.

Wheeler is expected to formally announce the new rule at a Tuesday appearance before a conservative think tank.

Titled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” the EPA made a 93-page pre-publication version of the final rule public this morning as part of a press release. It “requires the EPA to identify and make publicly available the science that serves as the basis for informing a significant regulatory action at the proposed or draft stage to the extent practicable.”

Ben Levitan, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, said Tuesday that the rule “will hobble EPA’s ability to do its job and will expose Americans to more health risks from pollution.” 

“It’s a nasty parting shot from an administration that has undermined science and jeopardized our foundational environmental and public health protections from its beginning,” said Levitan in a statement. “Wheeler’s Censored Science Rule will limit EPA’s ability to consider rigorous scientific studies if all the underlying data are not available to third parties – even if those studies rely on confidential patient information, or there are other legal, ethical or practical barriers to disclosure.”

Levitan added that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration should reverse the decision as soon as possible, following his Jan. 20 inauguration.

Over the last four years, Trump’s administration has rolled back well over 100 environmental policies that conservative groups have bemoaned as handicaps to industrial business. This includes rolling back several Obama-era rules put in place to regulate coal ash and other industry pollutants.

Many of these policies are currently being challenged in court. Biden could reverse some via executive order once his presidency begins. Others will require longer bureaucratic reversal processes. 

The Biden administration tapped North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, Michael Regan, in December to take over as head of the EPA. Regan will be the first Black man to fill the post. Before beginning his tenure as the state’s secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, Regan previously served as the associate vice president of U.S. climate and energy of the Environmental Defense Fund, where he led efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change and air pollution.

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