The Trump administration launched an attack on the science behind many of the nation's clean air and clean water rules, announcing a proposal Tuesday that would in effect prevent regulators from considering a wide range of health studies when they look at new regulations.
The plan by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt would prohibit what he and industry advocates call "secret science" — studies that make use of data that are kept confidential, often for privacy reasons.
The embattled EPA chief, whose own secrecy on his personal finances and his activities in office has drawn the attention of investigators, framed the action as crucial to government transparency.
"The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end," Pruitt said in a statement. "The ability to test, authenticate, and reproduce scientific findings is vital for the integrity of the rule-making process. Americans deserve to assess the legitimacy of the science underpinning EPA decisions that may impact their lives."
Many of the country's most prominent research organizations, however, say the studies that Pruitt wants to ban are crucial to effectively protecting the environment.
The proposal threatens to cut off the federal government's access to essential data and subject science to political manipulation, the research groups say. That is because many health studies involve large amounts of patient data, which can be accessed only under condition of confidentiality. Banning such studies would prevent the EPA from considering many health impacts when looking at rules to limit pollution.
Identical proposals stalled in Congress after protests from research groups, including the University of California system and the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.
Environmentalists said Pruitt's motive is not to improve scientific integrity, but to stifle regulation.
"This is a blatant attack on science that undermines the EPA's ability to protect our health and environment," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the chief Washington lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters. She called the proposal a "sham" that would "limit the EPA's ability to use the best research on the health effects of pollution, which form the basis for vitally important protections."
The proposal gave Pruitt an opportunity to rally his most loyal supporters at a time his job is in jeopardy. He faces multiple investigations for alleged ethical lapses, and his support at the White House and among Republican lawmakers who long defended him has begun to fade.
Even Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a vocal climate-change skeptic and longtime mentor of the EPA chief, is now hedging his support. Asked about the allegations against Pruitt, Inhofe told reporters that "if they are all accurate, I would be very disturbed."
On Thursday, Pruitt is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill, where he probably will be confronted with tough questions — many by Republicans — about his spending at the agency and his personal financial relationships with people who had business before him.
Pruitt surrounded himself with a less hostile audience at EPA headquarters on Tuesday. Reporters weren't allowed in the room to ask questions.
Supporters seemed to go out of their way to address his precarious place in the Trump administration: "We could not have a better head of the EPA," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) declared, shortly before disparaging the uninvited press corps.
Pruitt's critics accused him of seeking to ban research that has undergone extensive peer review in order to pursue a political agenda.
Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy accused Pruitt of seeking to "cripple" his own agency. Studies driving some of the most important environmental protections, she said, were built around analysis of medical records that are required by law to be kept confidential.
Industry groups and free-market activists have been pushing for more than 20 years for a ban along the lines of what Pruitt proposed. The battle began in the 1990s after Harvard researchers examined how air pollution affected more than 8,000 adults and 14,000 children in six U.S. cities over a period of more than a dozen years.
Their findings were alarming. Residents of the city with the dirtiest air were 26% more likely to die prematurely than residents of the city with the cleanest air. The main cause of the health problems was soot from burning fossil fuels.
The study opened the way to some of the most aggressive federal smog and soot rules in history. The new rules, which the EPA at the time said would prevent 15,000 premature deaths annually and 250,000 cases of asthma, were a major financial burden for industry, which fought them aggressively. The federal government's embrace of the Harvard findings has provided a legal foundation for aggressive air rules to this day.
As is typically the case in public health studies, the Harvard researchers had guaranteed participants confidentiality.
Industry critics say such guarantees prevent them from fully vetting studies and determining the accuracy of the conclusions. Many scientists, however, say that studies of similar size and scope won't be possible in the future if such guarantees can't be made.
Scientific groups are also alarmed by a requirement in Pruitt's proposal that any science that helps form the basis of an environmental regulation be subject to being "replicated" independently.
Many important studies, scientists warn, cannot be easily reproduced because they involve tracking large numbers of people over lengthy periods of time. In other cases, the data may be available only after a particular event, as was the case with environmental studies assessing the effects of the BP oil spill after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Those studies might have been off-limits to the EPA had Pruitt's proposal been in effect at the time, his opponents say.
Nearly 1,000 scientists sent Pruitt a letter Monday urging that he not adopt the ban. Doing so, they warned, would lead to "policies and practices that will ignore significant risks to the health of every American."
The proposal Pruitt embraced has been a longtime goal of some of the most ardent critics of mainstream environmental science. Conservative activists accuse many environmental scientists of approaching their work with an agenda. After their years-long effort to get Congress to impose restrictions on the scientific studies regulators could consider, they enlisted Pruitt to take up their cause administratively.
Pruitt's announcement of the proposed rules was made in a closed event that included some of those lawmakers, and also prominent climate skeptics.
Smith, who heads the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, applauded Pruitt for "bringing a stop to hidden agendas."
"For too long, the EPA has issued rules and regulations based on data that has been withheld from the American people," Smith said. "The American people have a right to know how and why regulations are made."
The proposal now moves to a public comment period, when the EPA will ostensibly consider input from scientists, environmental groups, industry and others. Pruitt's comments on Tuesday suggested, however, that the agency is unlikely to change its plan.
Environmental groups promised to challenge Pruitt's plan in court. But if the proposal survives court challenges, it could limit even a future administration more sympathetic to environmental regulation. That's because a new administration would have to go through a lengthy process of changing federal rules before regulators could once again consider the types of public health and other studies Pruitt wants banned.
"This proposal would mean throwing out the studies we rely on to protect the public, for no good reason," said Betsy Southerland, who resigned her post as director of science and technology at the EPA Office of Water in August. "This would have an enormous and negative impact on the EPA's ability to enforce the law and protect people's health."
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3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction and detail on the EPA proposal.