U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler dismissed an auxiliary panel of air pollution experts last fall.

Cliff Owen/AP Photo

EPA panel seeks to bring back fired scientists for clean-air review

Originally published by E&E News

A fractured EPA advisory panel is asking for help as its ability to handle a high-stakes review of particulate matter standards is under harsh scrutiny.

At a public teleconference yesterday, the seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee agreed to recommend that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler reconvene an auxiliary panel of experts he abruptly fired last October—or name a new panel made up of members with similar know-how.

There's no assurance, however, the EPA chief will honor the request. A former contract lobbyist whose clients had included the nation's largest privately owned coal company, Wheeler has given little explanation for his decision to disband the auxiliary panel, which was charged with helping the main committee in its review of the existing national limits on airborne particulate pollution (Greenwire, Oct. 12, 2018).

In an email this afternoon, an EPA spokeswoman said Wheeler will take all of the committee's advice under consideration. Tony Cox, a Denver-based consultant who chairs the committee, said in an email that members have not discussed how to proceed if Wheeler rejects it. Also unclear is whether revival of the auxiliary panel would act as a drag on completing the review by EPA's self-imposed deadline of December 2020.

The committee, usually known by its acronym of CASAC, is charged with offering independent advice to EPA during the review of the particulate standards, which were last revised in 2012. But its members' fitness to do their jobs again came under biting attack yesterday from former CASAC members and other critics.

"This process is a travesty," Lianne Sheppard, an ex-member who is on the University of Washington's public health faculty, said during one of two sessions allotted for public feedback during the teleconference. Sheppard was one of more than a dozen people to speak, many of whom were similarly cutting.

For the committee, the call's primary purpose was to hammer out a final version of its report on a draft EPA roundup of scientific research on particulate matter's health and ecological effects. That draft roundup, released last fall and formally known as an integrated science assessment (ISA), cited evidence the existing standards are too weak.

The CASAC's preliminary report, made public early this month, had slammed the EPA document for employing "unverifiable opinions" to draw its conclusions and a litany of other alleged flaws. For the committee's detractors, the scathing tone and tentative findings fueled suspicions the panel has no intention of conducting an impartial review.

In a paper published last week, two of those critics accused Cox of pursuing an approach that would make it far more difficult for EPA to strengthen air quality standards to protect public health. Underlying calls for the revival of the auxiliary panel, which was made up mostly of scientists and researchers from academia, is the fact that the CASAC's current members mostly lack a deep background in air pollution research.

Cox, who has previously done work for the oil and chemical industries, had previously described the preliminary report as a CASAC document and accused opponents of distorting his views. Yesterday, however, he took responsibility for the language that has drawn the most attention and offered a partial mea culpa.

While Cox did not disavow the views underlying his earlier broadside, he said he "made a bad mistake by holding out this ideal of what science should be and then criticizing the ISA for not adhering to that ideal." A more useful approach, he said, would be to make specific recommendations for what the ISA should do "that it doesn't do now."

The bulk of the call was dedicated to hashing out a final version of the preliminary report the committee could then send to Wheeler with its blessing. All of the committee's seven members are rookies to EPA's intricate process for reviewing air quality standards. During the call, there were occasional struggles to follow Cox as he proposed major changes to the preliminary report.

"Where are we? What page are you on?" Steve Packham, a Utah state air official, asked at one point. The call, which had been scheduled to last four hours, ran closer to six. Citing a previous commitment, Corey Masuca, another member based in Alabama, dropped out early but left instructions with the EPA employee running the teleconference that he would go along with whatever the committee agreed on.

Dominating the remaining discussions were Cox and Mark Frampton, a retired professor of medicine from the University of Rochester; the two politely but repeatedly clashed over specific "wordsmithing" changes to the preliminary assessment. One of the lengthier debates involved whether to recommend that the research underpinning the ISA's conclusions should be "independently reproducible and verifiable."

"This could be read as indicating that all studies should be thrown out unless somebody has gone in and reproduced them," Frampton said. The wording, he indicated, reminded him of former EPA chief Scott Pruitt's controversial proposal to more broadly bar the use of studies in drafting new regulations for which the underlying data were not transparent and reproducible.

"The thing is, it should be independently reproducible—otherwise it's not science," Cox later replied, shortly before broaching a compromise that appeared to win Frampton's assent. At the call's conclusion, committee members verbally signed off on some significant changes to the original draft. Those changes will now be incorporated into a final version that will go to Wheeler; besides urging revival of the auxiliary panel, the committee is also calling on EPA to do a second draft of the ISA.

Under the Clean Air Act, particulate matter is one of a half-dozen "criteria" pollutants for which EPA is supposed to periodically review and, if needed, tighten National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The use of auxiliary panels to augment the main CASAC's expertise dates back decades. In defending Wheeler's decision to fire the particulate matter review panel last fall, a spokesman said it was consistent with the Clean Air Act and the CASAC's charter, neither of which mentions such panels.

In response to a congressional query preceding his Senate confirmation earlier this year, Wheeler said he believed that the main committee "has the experience and expertise needed to serve in this capacity." He added that EPA can also tap advice from other experts to assist the CASAC as needed.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2019. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net.