The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking its denial of science a step further. The New York Times got its hands on a new draft of “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” a proposal the agency first announced last year. Unfortunately the latest version of the document looks even worse than the last.
In an effort to supposedly increase the transparency of the science behind environmental regulations, the EPA wants American scientists to share all the data and information behind their research publicly, including private patient data, before the agency uses it to base regulations on. Public health research, however, requires pulling data from thousands of individuals whose information is kept confidential. Even though that data remains confidential, studies are peer reviewed by outside experts before being published. But the EPA proposal would make so peer review alone isn’t enough for a study to be used in rule-making.
The Times is reporting that the latest draft of the proposal would affect regulations that are already in place. If the Trump administration can make a case for the proposal once it’s finalised next year, it would make it easier for it to continue rolling back environmental and public health protections. A proposal like this is almost certain to head to the courts, John Bachmann, former EPA associate director for science, policy, and new programs for Office of Air and Radiation, told Earther.
“I think they’re going to get sued and lose when it gets down to promulgating this thing,” he said.
A lot of that will depend on what the proposal looks like when it’s finalised. EPA spokesperson Corry Schiermeyer wrote in an email to Earther that the draft the Times obtained is a “draft version of the Supplemental, not the actual text submitted to [the Office of Management and Budget].” On November 8, the agency submitted a draft supplemental federal register notice to the office that modified its initial proposal from 2018. The agency got public comment on the main new rule proposal last year, but now it will take comment only on these additions, Schiermeyer said in the email.
These changes largely revolve around what types of policies the proposal would impact. And now we know the answer: all of them.
“And that opens up all kinds of obvious problems,” Bachmann told Gizmodo. “There are, for example, risk assessments that are done based on older, toxicology studies that are maybe 10, 15 years old. What’s the likelihood that the scientists that did those studies kept all the data that would be needed to evaluate them? So does that mean industry could now sue EPA to withdraw a risk assessment that a regulation was based on because you can’t get data that was thrown away in the past? My goodness, they don’t even know, and that’s one of the biggest issues here.”
This proposal can be especially dangerous to the health of communities of colour in the U.S. that are often living near polluting facilities and will be directly impacted if regulations for, say, mercury or lead suffer at the hands of this policy. Plus, these communities—especially black and Native American—have a troubled history with the scientific community. Safeguarding their private information is a way scientists have tried to repair the trauma there. Releasing it is the opposite of what is needed to keep building trust.
The EPA won’t finalise this proposal until next year. Hopefully, the U.S. has got a new president in the White House by then who would just replace it with a new policy or roll it back altogether. If the U.S. is stuck with another four years of Trump, the final rule will likely fall in a judge’s hands.