The Fix Is In: EPA Packs Science Advisory Boards with Industry Advocates

Today EPA selected new scientific advisors for its Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). The selections confirm that the Agency is no longer interested in protecting the environment or public health. Instead, EPA is looking out for its number-one constituency: the polluters it should be regulating.

Both the SAB and the CASAC were created by Congress in the 1970s to provide the EPA with impartial scientific advice; the SAB was created in 1978 to provide input on a range of issues, and the CASAC was created in 1977 to review air quality standards.

Today’s move shows new levels of hypocrisy from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. He was quoted as saying that the EPA focus “should be sound science, not political science.” There can be no question that he has just gone in the opposite direction, replacing credible scientific advisors with industry-friendly ideologues. Pruitt also claims that researchers who receive EPA funding may be biased, and has excluded them from consideration. Yet several of today’s appointments were asked to self-nominate by the new EPA leadership. Apparently there is only a conflict if you had a relationship with the old EPA. Rubber stamps for the new EPA philosophy – which could be summed up as ‘protecting public health is too expensive’ – are welcome.

The EPA had many experienced, respected, and neutral nominees to choose from. Yet the Agency selected a roster of advisors with clear conflicts of interest (see below). This will ultimately erode the credibility of the EPA and its scientific determinations. SAB and CASAC members should always ‘follow the science,’ or let the most objectively defensible interpretation of the facts guide their conclusions. They should not, on the other hand, approach scientific questions with pre-established outcomes in mind. For that reason, we support EPA’s use of certain criteria for selection, including the “absence of an appearance of loss of impartiality” and the “[a]bsence of a financial conflict of interest.” Unfortunately, the Agency ignored its own criteria, and many of the SAB and CASAC appointments do appear to have a financial conflict of interest, in that they are employed by or funded by regulated industry.

The new appointments are also not ‘impartial,’ and in fact they tend to show a strong ideological bias against common-sense public health protections. They are also representative of a small group of fringe researchers that tend to flock together. Many have been asked to appear before Texas Representative Lamar Smith’s anti-science Committee on Science, Space & Technology. For example, Michael Honeycutt, Robert Phalen, and Anne Smith all testified on a panel attacking EPA science (with the doublespeak title “Quality Science for Quality Air”) in 2011.

The following descriptions of some of the new appointments show clear conflicts of interest, bias, and in some cases a simple lack of relevant experience. Unless otherwise stated, biographical information comes from biosketches for the Chartered Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee provided by the EPA.

    • The new chair of the SAB will be Michael Honeycutt. Honeycutt works for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, where he has gained notoriety for systematically downplaying human health risks. According to the Texas Observer, “Honeycutt almost never finds any links between pollution and health effects. He almost always sides with industry. And he never finds a reason for laws to be strengthened.” His testimony before Congress in 2011, for example, minimized the health effects of mercury exposure.
    • The new CASAC chair will be Tony Cox. Cox has extensive experience working for industries that are or may be affected by air pollution control policies, including the American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council, the National Pork Board, the Western States Petroleum Association, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and others, and has questioned the well-established association between particulate matter and mortality.
    • Rodney Andrews is an engineer whose “research interests include technologies for utilization of coal.” He does not appear to have any experience or expertise in the assessment of human health and environmental risks.
    • Frederick Bernthal is an accomplished scientist with expertise that could be useful to the SAB. However, the fact that he was a director of fossil fuel and nuclear utilities for nearly twenty years (first PPL Corporation, and then Talen Energy Corporation) may add to the pro-industry imbalance in the overall SAB makeup.
    • Samuel Cohen appears to have a dangerous ideological agenda. As explained in more detail by Dr. Richard Dennison of the Environmental Defense Fund, Cohen is a “heavily conflicted scientist” who receives funding from regulated industry and would like to see the EPA take fewer precautions with toxic chemicals.
    • John D. Graham also has a dangerous ideological agenda. When he was nominated to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in 2001, fifty-three academics and scientists wrote an open letter in opposition, stating that

      “[Graham] has undermined regulatory efforts by understating many of the potential benefits of health, safety and environmental regulation and overstating their costs. Moreover, Professor Graham has publicly rendered many opinions on complex and imperfectly understood scientific phenomena, such as the etiology of cancer and other diseases, despite his lack of a degree in the hard sciences. Graham’s work has, overall, demonstrated a remarkable congruency with the interests of regulated industries.”

      Graham’s conflicts of interest are clear: “He has solicited and accepted unrestricted funds from corporations with a direct financial interest in particular regulatory issues addressed by his work, without acknowledging the role of his corporate benefactors.”

    • Merlin R. Lindstrom has significant chemistry experience, but does not appear to have any experience or expertise in the assessment of human health and environmental risks. His position as vice president of technology for Phillips 66 Company presents a financial conflict of interest.
    • Robert W. Merritt is a petroleum industry geologist with no apparent experience or expertise in the assessment of human health and environmental risks.
    • Larry Monroe is a chemical engineer who was employed by Southern Company for the past twenty years, has received funding from other utilities, and has served as an industry representative in EPA stakeholder processes.
    • Robert Phalen has important expertise in the field of inhalation toxicology, but he also has a troubling aversion to precautionary public health policies. Phalen has claimed that clean air is bad for childrens’ health, and testified before the U.S. House of Representatives that EPA’s “mandate to err on the side of increased safety can also be a disservice to public health.” Dr. Phalen has also advocated for more industry representation on EPA advisory boards, and for fewer members with a history of EPA funding.
    • Anne Smith is an economic consultant with a history of attacking EPA regulations. She has no relevant experience or expertise in the assessment of human health and environmental risks.
    • Donald van der Vaart is a former Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality with a strong ideological hostility to EPA regulation. In 2016, he co-authored a letter to Donald Trump in which he asked Trump to end “federal overreach,” put a moratorium on new and proposed EPA regulations, and turn environmental regulation over to the states. While he was head of the Department of Environmental Quality, his department ignored its own scientists to rescind do-not-drink warnings related to drinking water with unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium.
    • Kimberly White has a clear financial conflict of interest given her position as a senior director with the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry lobbying group. White is known for, among other things, working to prevent restrictions on toxic chemicals in children’s toys.
    • Stanley Young is a consultant who serves as an advisor to fringe think tanks like the Heartland Institute, which aggressively seeks to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change and other health threats, and the American Council on Science and Health, which is funded by special interests and, predictably, does not believe that financial conflicts of interest are a problem. Young has made the ridiculous assertion that “the threats of air pollution – PM2.5 and ozone – on deaths is imaginary,” and claims that “climate is also imaginary.”

    What happens next? If the past is any guide, these advisors will follow a predictable playbook. They will poke holes in any scientific evidence of a health threat, and find ways to minimize or dismiss key studies. They will argue that there is too much uncertainty in the science to justify regulation. They will ignore threats that are widely accepted in the scientific community. In the end, the EPA is likely to drift far from the scientific mainstream and lose credibility. Some are already referring to the new roster of advisors as “schlock science.” More importantly, the Agency will drift further from its mission, to the detriment of public health. This is yet another giant step backward for what used to be the Environmental Protection Agency.