Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Cliff Owen/AP photo

Key EPA science advisers call on agency to revive an expert soot panel it just killed

Originally published by E&E News

Two of acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler's appointees to a prominent advisory committee are pushing back against his recent decision to disband an auxiliary panel involved in a closely watched review of airborne particulate standards.

EPA "should immediately" reconstitute the particulate matter panel, Dr. Mark Frampton, a retired University of Rochester, New York, pulmonologist, wrote in comments made public yesterday. The panel "should be retained to enable more thorough review" of a draft EPA roundup of scientific research on the health and environmental effects of particulate matter exposure, said Tim Lewis of the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Wheeler named both men to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) in October, around the same time that he fired the approximately 24-member review panel, which was supposed to help the committee with added know-how during its legally required review of the standards.

Also urging its revival is Jim Boylan, a senior manager at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, appointed to the committee last fall by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The panel would furnish "additional insight and expertise to allow for a more thorough and in-depth review of the relevant science and policy documents," Boylan wrote.

All of their input is included in CASAC's preliminary written response to the draft roundup, which will be the subject of a two-day meeting starting tomorrow in a hotel just outside Washington. EPA spokesman John Konkus and other agency press aides did not reply to an email seeking comment. Wheeler has given no explanation for disbanding the panel, apart from saying the decision to concentrate authority with CASAC was consistent with the Clean Air Act and the committee's charter.

By law, the seven-member CASAC provides outside expertise to EPA during assessments of the air quality standards for particulate matter, ozone and four other pollutants. All of its current members have been appointed under President Donald Trump’s administration; the panel is now supposed to conduct the appraisals of the particulate matter and ozone limits under new, streamlined procedures laid out by Pruitt this spring.

The review of the ozone standard, kick-started in June, is supposed to conclude by October 2020. By EPA norms, that's an exceptionally tight timetable with no recent precedent. The review of the particulate matter thresholds, once expected to end early in the next decade, is now supposed to also wrap up in late 2020, just before the end of Trump's current term.

Apart from Frampton, none of the seven CASAC members has a deep background in air pollution research. During a teleconference last month related to the ozone standard assessment, both Lewis and Frampton similarly urged creation of an auxiliary review panel, while Boylan put a higher priority on doing a good job than on meeting the October 2020 deadline.

But the review of the particulate matter standards is particularly fraught. So-called fine particulates are linked to a wide spectrum of heart and lung problems that include a heightened risk of premature death.

The draft research roundup, spanning almost 1,900 pages and formally known as an integrated science assessment (ISA), cites evidence that the existing limits on fine particulate exposure are too weak to adequately protect public health. Business groups, however, are worried about the added compliance costs that would likely follow any decision to tighten the existing limits. Moreover, 15 former members of the disbanded particulate matter review panel yesterday slammed EPA's fast-track game plan for the review and hinted that a legal challenge could be in the offing (Greenwire, Dec. 10).

"We remind CASAC and EPA, and CASAC should remind EPA, that the courts have recognized the importance of CASAC's role and the need for adequate scientific review time," they wrote in the letter to Tony Cox, the committee's chairman.

In an email, Cox yesterday called the scheduling and process questions "well worth considering," but said they are not the committee's primary responsibility. While Cox has previously said he has not reached any conclusion on whether the fine particulate standards should be changed, his past work for industry has left some scientists and environmental groups skeptical of his evenhandedness. In his comments on the draft research roundup, Cox wrote that he wanted more evidence, saying EPA should also provide "quantitative estimates" for "the amount of human health harm preventable by reducing PM exposures."

The clashing viewpoints enveloping the issue will be on full display tomorrow, with more than 25 speakers scheduled to address the committee. Many have already made written submissions of what they plan to say. Among them is Stewart Holm, chief scientist for the American Forest and Paper Association, who cited another study that he said "illuminates the complexity and uncertainty" surrounding the research over fine particulates' health effects. "Until this uncertainty is addressed, it is possible that a substantial portion of the conclusions reached by the ISA regarding adverse health effects may be unreliable," Holm wrote in recommending that the existing standards be left in place.

They will also include Daniel Costa, a cardiopulmonary physiologist who headed EPA's air quality research program from 2008 until early this year, according to his advance written testimony. Recalling how his father died in 1998 from heart arrhythmia, Costa acknowledged that he probably could not definitively pin the death on exposure to particulate pollution from a nearby coal-fired power plant operating at the time in the coastal Massachusetts area.

But, he added in the statement, "Do I believe that the emissions of the power plant were responsible? You're damn right I do!"

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2018. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net.

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