During the dramatic last few weeks of the Trump presidency, the US Environmental Protection Agency completed one of its last major rollbacks by limiting the type of research it can use to inform industry regulations. The Trump administration claims the new rule serves transparency. Opponents say it’s another attack on science — one that could cripple future public health regulation.
Finalized last week, the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule — often called the “secret science” policy — blocks the EPA from using epidemiological studies that contain nonpublic patient medical information. That means that many studies connecting industrial air or water pollution with adverse community health impacts may be considered invalid by the federal agency tasked with ensuring public health.
“We’re going to put at risk the health of a whole lot of people and maybe even lead to their deaths,” Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, a Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told The New York Times.
The deregulators’ war on “secret science” goes back to the 1990s, when attorney Christopher Horner, an outspoken climate denialist, prompted the tobacco industry to demand full transparency from scientific studies on the impacts of secondhand smoke. The “secret science action plan” later became a tobacco industry public relations strategy to fight regulations.
Ripping a page from Horner’s playbook, the Trump administration, frustrated with clean air regulations based on studies like the renowned 1993 Harvard “Six Cities” study, began discussing its own secret science rule early in Trump’s term.
(At a committee meeting last May, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler feigned ignorance about the connection between the EPA rule and the tobacco industry, even though he announced his rule this week in a virtual forum hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an anti-regulation think tank that Horner himself represents.)
The policy was proposed in 2018, and already, Trump’s EPA has used the rule to reject studies linking common pesticides with farmworker health problems. In 2015, the Obama administration decided to ban chlorpyrifos — one of the most widely used pesticides in the agriculture industry — after a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, funded by the EPA, linked the chemical to child developmental disorders in farmworker families. Two years later, Scott Pruitt, the EPA’s administrator at the time, reversed the ban — citing that the data was inconclusive because the raw data was inaccessible to the public.
As tobacco lobbyists had done, Trump’s EPA demanded transparency from researchers. But many scientists have emphasized that these demands are misguided.
Thomas Sinks, an epidemiologist who recently retired from his role as director of the EPA’s science advisory office, filed an official opinion explaining that human subject research is “the most predictive data for establishing the human health impact from environmental exposures” and that this type of data is “protected from unrestricted public access” by laws like HIPPA and the Privacy Act. By invalidating private patient data, the secret science rule delegitimizes much of the EPA’s most consequential data.
But Trump’s EPA insists that this patient data should be made either public or void. On Tuesday, in the forum hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Wheeler echoed industry lobbyist talking points. “Transparency knows no political ideology,” he said. “It’s sunshine. It’s transparency.”
But opponents see Wheeler’s “transparency” as a clear attempt by the Trump administration to sideline peer-reviewed scientific advice for the sake of private industry. “This is a bold attempt to get science out of the way so special interests can do what they want,” Chris Zarba, a former director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, told The Washington Post.
“If this rule were to be finalized it would create chaos,” Sinks told The New York Times last fall.
But creating chaos seems to be the strategy in the final weeks of the Trump presidency — from gutting protections for migratory birds, to trying to auction off portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to inciting an anti-government mob to storm the Capitol while Congress was in session. It’s unclear how many fires the Biden administration will be able to put out, and how quickly.
As for the secret science policy, groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists are already discussing taking legal action. The Biden administration will likely overturn it, though bureaucratic hurdles, and a long list of damage to correct, may push the effort back months or longer.
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