WASHINGTON (CN) –EPA administrator Scott Pruitt violated ethical rules when barring scientific researchers from sitting on federal advisory boards because they receive agency grants to conduct public health studies, a lawsuit claims.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Washington, DC on Thursday, the plaintiff scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility, say Pruitt’s Oct. 31 order, "Strengthening and Improving Membership on EPA Federal Advisory Committees,” violated conflict of interest regulations set in motion over 30 years ago.
According to Pruitt’s order: "Members shall be independent from EPA, which [includes] a requirement that no member of an EPA federal advisory committee be currently in receipt of EPA grants, either as principal investigator or co-investigator, or in a position that would otherwise reap substantial direct benefit from an EPA grant."
Pruitt’s reasoning amounted to worry over unfair influence on committees which inform public policy.
“When we have members of those committees that have receive tens of millions of dollars in grants, at the same time they’re advising the agency on rulemaking, that is not good and that is not right,” Pruitt said in a written statement in October.
Shortly after, six advisory committee members were dismissed.
Those dismissed include plaintiffs Robyn Wilson, an Ohio State University professor who sat on the Scientific Advisory Board, and Edward Lawrence Avol, an expert in air pollution and children’s respiratory health, who sat on the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee.
Plaintiff Joe Arvai, a University of Michigan professor researching environmental, social and economic impact on federal rulemaking , was also dismissed. He sat on the Chartered Science Advisory Board.
Pruitt’s order “[forced] them to choose between serving on [advisory committees] or receiving grants to fund important scientific research,” they claim.
Further, the order “causes significant harm to the public interest,” because their replacements “work directly for industries regulated by EPA or receive financial support from such industries.”
Additionally, they claim, Pruitt violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act when appointing Robert Merritt, an executive with Total, one of the world's largest oil and gas companies, to the scientific advisory board.
The same goes for appointees Larry Monroe, an executive with Southern Company, a utility operating coal-and gas-fired power plants throughout the United States, and Kimberly White, senior director at the trade association, the American Chemistry Council.
The Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 should bar a revolving door of industry giants onto scientific panels, the plaintiffs say.
In the text of the Act Congress noted "one of the great dangers of unregulated use of advisory committees is that special interest groups may use their membership on such bodies to promote their private concerns.”
The plaintiffs argue that expression of congressional intent means Pruitt must ensure committee advice and recommendations aren’t “inappropriately influenced” either by himself, “the appointing authority,” or any other special interest.
Influence on policy should be a result of the advisory committee’s independent judgment and sound research, they say.
Robert Johnston, an environmental economist at Clark University in Massachusetts, was also removed from the EPA’s Science Advisory Board this year after refusing to surrender his grant-funded research on water quality.
“The reason they have these grants, like any government grant, is to have the people who are often the best scientists in a particular field [available]," Johnston told Courthouse News on Friday. "By excluding people who have EPA grants automatically and replacing them with people who often don’t have the same scientific credentials or who come in from the regulatory community – that leads to concerns regarding what kind of scientific advice you’re getting. And to what extent.”
An EPA official would not comment on the litigation but said when it comes to the Act, as the long as the conflict is “generic” then it’s okay to serve on a committee.
But determining what constitutes a "generic" conflict never discussed publicly, the plaintiffs claim.
“EPA did not provide public notice of the directive for the purpose of taking public comment, nor did it take public comment. EPA did not promulgate the Directive jointly with [Office of Government Ethics or] publish the Directive in the Federal Register” the complaint states.
The Office of Government Ethics declined to comment Friday.
Deborah Swackhamer, who currently chairs the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, said Friday she will follow the suit “with interest.”
“Mr. Pruitt’s policy is unnecessary under current ethics laws, and appears to be a clumsy move to exclude academic scientists’ advice. This censorship is not being applied to industry voices, who often have significant conflicts of interest due to the fact that EPA regulated them,” Swackhamer said.
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