Pruitt to unveil controversial 'transparency' rule limiting what research EPA can use

WASHINGTON - Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to propose a rule Tuesday that would establish new standards for what science could be used in writing agency regulations, according to individuals briefed on the plan. It is a sweeping change long sought by conservatives.

The rule, which Pruitt has described in interviews with select media over the past month, would only allow EPA to consider studies for which the underlying data are made available publicly. Advocates describe this approach as an advance for transparency, but critics say it would effectively block the agency from relying on long-standing, landmark studies linking air pollution and pesticide exposure to harmful health effects.

In an interview Sunday with radio host John Catsimatidis on 970 AM in New York, Pruitt described the change as a way to let the public judge "the data, the methodology, the analytics" behind any scientific analysis presented to the EPA as it drafts regulations.

"That's transparency," he told Catsimatidis. "It gives people the opportunity in real time to peer review. It goes to the heart of what we should be about as an agency."

The individuals briefed on the rule, which will be subject to a 30-day comment period, spoke on the condition of anonymity in advance of the announcement.

Many scientists argue that applying a standard to public health and environmental studies that is not currently required by peer-reviewed journals would limit the information the EPA could take into account when crafting federal limits on everything from power-plant emissions to which chemicals can be used in agriculture and in homes. Some researchers collect personal data from subjects but pledge to keep it confidential - as was the case in a major 1993 study by Harvard University that established the link between fine particle air pollution and premature deaths. That practice would not be allowed under the new rule.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, sought to establish a requirement similar to the one Pruitt will propose through legislation, but it failed to pass both chambers.

On Monday, 985 scientists signed a letter organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists urging Pruitt not to forge ahead with the policy change.

"There are ways to improve transparency in the decision-making process, but restricting the use of science would improve neither transparency nor the quality of EPA decision-making," they wrote. "If fully implemented, this proposal would greatly weaken EPA's ability to comprehensively consider the scientific evidence across the full array of health studies."

Under the proposed rule, third parties would be able to test and try to replicate the findings of studies submitted to EPA. But, the scientists wrote, "many public health studies cannot be replicated, as doing so would require intentionally and unethically exposing people and the environment to harmful contaminants or recreating one-time events."

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Center for Science and Democracy, said in an email that Pruitt's move would expand on his earlier decision to change the standards for who can serve on EPA's advisory committees. Last year, Pruitt barred any scientists from serving if they received EPA grants for their work. Researchers funded by industries regulated by the agency are to continue serving, however.

"First, they came after the agency's independent science advisers, and now, they're going after the science itself," Rosenberg said. "What is transparent is the unabashed takeover of EPA leadership by individuals who have demonstrated disinterest in helping communities combat pollution by using the best available science."