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EPA’s ‘secret science’ plan is back, and critics say it’s worse

Critics are blasting a revised Trump administration plan to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broad power to ignore research results when setting public health rules if officials decide the underlying data are not adequately accessible to the public.

The draft document, a version of which was leaked to The New York Times this week, supplements a 2018 data transparency proposal from EPA that was harshly criticized by scientific, environmental, and patient groups, prompting the agency to say it would issue a revision. Although EPA said in a 12 November statement that the leaked document is not the final version it sent earlier this month to the White House for review, the agency did not dispute its core substance.

The proposed supplement “is even worse than we thought it would be,” says Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. “We didn’t think [the transparency proposal] could get any worse, but we were wrong.”

One issue, critics say, is that EPA wants to greatly broaden the policy’s scope, applying it to all studies and data used by the agency and not just the “dose response” studies mentioned in the initial version. The draft also asks the public to comment on whether, in some cases, the transparency rule should be applied retroactively to past studies used to support regulation, potentially opening the door to challenges of existing rules.

EPA officials have argued that the data transparency policy is needed to ensure that the agency uses only the best “pivotal regulatory science” that can be “independently validated” when crafting “significant” rules that are expected to impose major economic costs. The leaked proposal says EPA regulators should have “the right to place less weight” on certain studies, “to the point of entirely disregarding them,” if the underlying data are “not made available in full to EPA.”

Critics say that language is primarily designed to weaken regulation by preventing EPA from considering epidemiological and other studies in which researchers have promised to protect the privacy of human subjects. Such confidential health information, which is typically not released to the public, has played a major role in shaping stricter EPA limits on air pollutants. For example, the iconic 1993 Six Cities Study, which linked particulate air pollution to human death and disease, helped spur new EPA soot controls. But some industry groups have long objected to EPA’s use of such “secret science.”

EPA already has ways to assess the quality of studies and decide which it should consider when writing new rules, notes Chris Frey, a former scientific adviser to the agency and an air quality researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “But what those methods don’t do is say: ‘Just because there isn’t full public disclosure of the data, we’re going to wipe out and ignore that study, regardless of its quality.’ Doing that would prevent you from considering the full weight of the scientific evidence.”

The draft acknowledges that full disclosure may not be possible for some studies involving health or proprietary business information; it would empower political appointees at EPA to exempt certain studies from transparency requirements. It also asks for comment on whether EPA should adopt methods, such as those used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for only sharing sensitive data with approved researchers.

But the proposal doesn’t discuss how much such vetting might cost, or how the rule might affect efforts to protect public health, critics note. “There’s no real analysis of what this rule would do, or the costs and benefits … it’s a solution in search of a problem,” Frey says.

One prominent advocate of the transparency rule, however, welcomes the new draft. “I’m elated. … We’re making progress,” says Steve Milloy of in Potomac, Maryland, who served on the Trump administration’s transition team at EPA. “But it’s not the end game by far,” he adds, noting the proposal must still be opened to public comment, and that any final policy will likely face a court challenge. Milloy also notes that even if EPA adopts the rule, agency officials will have leeway in interpreting it. “Words have never really mattered,” he says. “What matters is how the people in charge implement them.”