WASHINGTON (CN) – An office inside the Environmental Protection Agency that provides scientific research informing policy on public health and environmental regulations will soon be shuttered to cut back on agency redundancies.
According to a report published Thursday by E and E News, Jennifer Orne-Zavaleta, who currently serves as deputy administrator for science at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, informed staffers Wednesday that the agency would soon eliminate the Office of Science Advisor.
That office will reportedly merge with the Office of Science Policy and another department that is an offshoot of the National Center for Environmental Research.
The EPA’s decision to eliminate the Science Advisor department is part of a broader strategy ordered by the Trump administration last year to streamline federal agencies across a number of branches.
As of Friday, it is uncertain if the reorganization will trigger layoffs or if scientists who once provided analysis and research will see assignments shifted or terminated.
In a statement Friday, Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta said the proposed merger to combine the office will “reduce redundancies in Office of Research and Development operations.”
“ORD has briefed [Administrator Andrew Wheeler] on those plans and held a town hall in September to announce the result of their work and proposed plan to staff," Orme-Zavaleta said. "One of the suggestions was combining the Office of Science Advisor with the Office of Science Policy, currently two separate offices within the ORD structure.
“The fact of the matter is that the Senate confirmed Assistant Administrator for ORD has customarily served as the EPA Science Advisor which will continue to be the case,” Orme-Zavaleta added.
Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the merger does not mean scientists at the EPA will be unable to perform their work, but it could make them more “vulnerable to political interference.”
And that, Halpern said in an interview Friday, could have a direct impact on regulatory outcomes.
“The scientific integrity office is within the Office of Science Advisor, and currently that office can investigate allegations of suppression or distortion or manipulation of science in all EPA offices,” he said. “Embedding the position within [the Office of Research and Development] makes it more difficult for the scientific integrity officer to investigate allegations either within the office or in other EPA offices.”
The merger could also make it “considerably easier” for acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to “ignore scientific input when making decisions,” Halpern said.
Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, took over the post in July after then-Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned.
The reorganization has been touted by Wheeler and other agency officials as a move toward greater efficiency. But if political interference in scientific study within the Office of Research and Development were allowed exist, Halpern said the very independence of the department’s scientific integrity officer would be under threat.
Administrators need independent science integrity officers and they need “unfiltered science advice,” he added.
From a regulatory perspective, Halpern pointed to new guidelines emerging on Maximum Achievable Control Technology, or MACT, which establishes emission standards.
Those standards, which come from the Office of Air and Radiation, could be compromised if the agency fails to have a science adviser on board who can tell the administrator whether standards are “scientifically defensible.”
Though it’s the administrator who signs off on the rules, it’s critical that a “direct pipeline” of science advice flows to Wheeler, Halpern said.
“This kind of move is particularly troubling when there is a very clear pattern of political staff making decisions where professional scientific staff is completely excluded from providing any kind of input,” he said.
The developments come just days after the EPA put Ruth Etzel, head of the agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, on leave.
Etzel was not able to be reached for comment Friday but widespread reports suggest she was not removed for disciplinary reasons.
New reshuffling at the EPA also includes a merger of the agency’s human-resources arm, known as the Office of Administration and Resources Management. It will be combined with the Office of Environmental Information, according to a presentation delivered to staffers on Wednesday.
That newly merged department will be known as the Office of Mission Support, and according to the presentation, will oversee “contracts, facilities, grants, human capital, information technology and information management services.”
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