Emissions rise from Duke Energy's coal-fired power plant in Asheville, N.C., in September 2018. Photo: Charles Mostoller / Bloomberg News

By Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin
13 October 2018

(The Washington Post) – The Environmental Protection Agency moved this week to disband two outside panels of experts charged with advising the agency on limiting harmful emissions of soot and smog-forming pollutants.

The agency informed scientists advising the EPA on the health impacts of soot that their “service on the panel has concluded,” according to an email shared with The Washington Post. Experts being considered to sit on a separate board evaluating ground-level ozone also received an email from the EPA saying it will no longer form the panel, which had yet to meet. The EPA had asked for nominations in July.

The decision to dissolve the panels is part of a broader effort by the EPA’s leadership to change the way the agency conducts and assesses science. Those efforts include trying to limit what counts as health benefits when crafting air rules and incorporate into rulemaking only studies that make their underlying data public.

In the past, each panel had roughly two dozen researchers who reviewed the latest air pollution science and made recommendations on how to set new air standards for a specific pollutant the agency is legally obligated to regulate. These experts, who came from a variety of fields, often encouraged the EPA to impose tougher limits on the six pollutants for which it sets nationwide standards.

Now, under acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA has instead decided to let a seven-member group called the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) alone perform those assessments and make recommendations to the agency’s political leaders. Previously, CASAC and the now-scrapped panels worked together to craft findings. […]

Environmentalists sharply criticized the decision as another instance of the Trump administration’s curtailing the use of science that contradicts the president’s pro-industry agenda. They argue that the committee’s small size, skewed composition and lack of expertise would make it nearly impossible to fully vet the vast body of pollution science related to public health.

“By removing science and scientists, they are making it easier for the administration to set a weaker standard” said Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

The EPA just selected five new members of the CASAC. Most of the committee’s members come from state or local governments in conservative parts of the country, including Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Utah, rather than from universities.

In a statement Wednesday, Wheeler praised the “highly qualified” group for having “a diverse set of backgrounds in fields like toxicology, engineering, medicine, ecology, and atmospheric science.”

But Christopher Zarba, who formerly directed the EPA office that coordinates with that and other scientific committees, said “there are fewer academics” than before. Researchers from academia, he said, “bring an essential science perspective to the review process.”

The lack of academics is consistent with past policy from Trump’s EPA. Last year, the agency barred academics who received EPA grants from serving on science panels. That effectively gave experts from industry and state governments more room to participate instead.

John Walke, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean air work, highlighted on Twitter the “alarming, outlier view” of one of those state officials appointed to the board. [more]

EPA scraps pair of air pollution science panels

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