EPA used disavowed research to justify putting dirtier trucks on the road

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
Share via

At a time when acts of defiance against the Trump administration are routine in Sacramento, the rebuke that breezed through the California Assembly this month still came as a jolt. Even Trump loyalists in the chamber joined in.

The message to the administration was clear: Forget about your plan to unleash on freeways a class of rebuilt trucks that spew as much as 400 times the choking soot that conventional new big rigs do. Getting caught behind the wheel of one of these mega-polluters in California would carry a punishing $25,000 minimum fine under the measure that lawmakers passed 73 to 0. It had the support of 25 Republicans.

“This was a reaction,” said Chris Shimoda, vice president of government affairs for the California Trucking Assn., which sponsored the legislation. “A lot of people have made the investments to clean up their trucks. They don’t want to see an obvious loophole that allows others to be gross polluters and undercut them.”


Equally strong reactions are rippling across the country in response to the Trump administration’s push to boost a cottage industry eager to sell trucks that run on rebuilt diesel engines. The trucks look new from the outside, but are equipped with repurposed motors that, according to the EPA’s own experts, threaten to produce enough soot each year to cause up to 1,600 premature deaths.

Trump’s EPA has tried to justify the move by citing a privately funded study that claimed the trucks did not cause more pollution, but even the university that conducted the research has now cast doubt on the findings.

The latest from Washington »

Air regulators loathe the proposal to allow thousands more of the trucks on the roads. Most of the trucking industry feels the same. Even the White House budget office and several conservative allies of the administration are balking.

“We urge you to consider the adverse impact on the economy,” said a letter that the Environmental Protection Agency recently disclosed from the Republican senators of Indiana, West Virginia and North Carolina. They warned EPA chief Scott Pruitt that the plan is ill-advised and disruptive to industry. Ten House Republicans concurred in their own letter, which warned the proposal is a potential job-killer. “We respectfully ask that you carefully consider the negative impacts,” the GOP lawmakers wrote.

Yet the EPA is undeterred. Its crusade to lift an Obama-era ban on these heavily polluting vehicles known as “gliders” perseveres, largely at the behest of a small group of activists on the right and one generous political donor, Tennessee businessman Tommy Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who has met privately with Pruitt and who held a campaign event in 2016 for Trump at one of his facilities, says restricting the sale of the trucks and the kits to build them threatens 22,000 jobs.


Pruitt says the restrictions on the trucks were a misuse of Clean Air Act regulations.

In announcing the rollback, Pruitt’s agency ignored its own findings about how much environmental damage the vehicles cause. Instead, it cited a new study from Tennessee Tech University that concluded, astonishingly, that the glider trucks were no more harmful to air quality than trucks with new engines. That study was bankrolled by Fitzgerald’s business.

The results of the study came as a shock to experts at the EPA, and also to the engineering faculty at Tennessee Tech.

“Tennessee Tech has skills in some areas, but air pollution is an area we have never worked in,” said David Huddleston, an engineering professor at the university. “I thought, who on campus knows enough to actually even offer an opinion on that? We have one guy who has some expertise in emissions, but he wasn’t even involved in this.”

The faculty would soon learn the study was run by a university vice president who lacked any graduate level engineering training, and that it was conducted at a Fitzgerald-owned facility. Tennessee Tech’s president and Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) — who has accepted more than $200,000 in political donations from Fitzgerald, his companies and top employees — had lobbied Pruitt to embrace the research.

The Tennessee study quickly came under suspicion. Notes from discussions between EPA scientists and its authors revealed major flaws. The EPA scientists then updated their own tests of glider vehicles, which confirmed the trucks are substantially dirtier than newly manufactured trucks.

The head of Tennessee Tech’s engineering department dismissed the study’s key conclusion as a “far-fetched, scientifically implausible claim” by a research team that included “no qualified, credentialed engineer.” The faculty senate passed a resolution demanding the university revoke its support for the study and launch an investigation.


By late February, the university asked the EPA to stop using or referring to the study, pending its investigation. That investigation continues.

“The university takes the allegations of research misconduct seriously,” the school said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “Tennessee Tech is still in the process of following its internal procedures related to such matters.”

Despite Pruitt’s earlier acknowledgment that the study factored into his decision to revisit the glider vehicle restrictions, an EPA spokesperson said in an email last week that “it played no role” in the action the EPA is now taking.

Two former EPA chiefs are skeptical. Christine Todd Whitman, who led the agency under George W. Bush, and Carol Browner, who led it under Bill Clinton, pointed out in a March letter to Pruitt that the industry’s petition that prompted the EPA to act on glider trucks relied heavily on the now disavowed study. They urged him to withdraw the proposal.

Fitzgerald’s company is refusing to publicly release the full study, which it owns under its arrangement with the school. But it has cast itself as the victim.

“We did not expect to receive work product that some have characterized as ‘flawed and shoddy’ or ‘far-fetched and scientifically implausible,’ and we certainly did not expect to be defamed by faculty members and administrators from the very institution that conducted the research,” a company lawyer wrote to university officials earlier this year.


The company later demanded that four faculty members who have spoken out against the research and the company’s involvement in it turn over any emails they wrote about the matter.

“It’s a mess,” said Huddleston. “All these professors are trying to do is the right thing. And now they have had to go out and hire lawyers to protect themselves. It’s sad.”

Rep. Black recently told Nashville Public Radio that she had no regrets about using the study to try to help the glider business. She said glider manufacturers are in a noble “David and Goliath” battle with much larger trucking interests seeking to crush them.

But even some at the White House are chafing. Its budget office directed the EPA to undertake an extensive economic review that will hold things up for weeks and could reveal more legal vulnerabilities. The free market think tank FreedomWorks has, in turn, launched a campaign to pressure the White House to approve the EPA’s plan promptly, without requiring the economic analysis.

It remains to be seen whether Pruitt will prevail. But if he succeeds, glider truck drivers could find themselves entering California at their own risk. Backers of the $25,000 penalties that the Assembly approved said they would expect to see them enforced, regardless of how the EPA proceeds. The bill appears likely to pass the state Senate and be signed into law.

Asked how it would confront that challenge, the agency demurred. “EPA has not yet taken a final action,” said the email from its press office, “and will not comment on hypothetical outcomes before the process is complete.”


More stories from Evan Halper »

Twitter: @evanhalper