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EPA Chief Pruitt’s Halloween Trick Will Scare the Health Out of You

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EPA Chief Pruitt’s Halloween Trick Will Scare the Health Out of You
Gage Skidmore

By Elliott Negin

On Halloween, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt gave Americans the equivalent of an apple filled with razor blades.

Instead of picking the best experts for his agency's Science Advisory Board (SAB) to protect public health, Pruitt appointed candidates who oppose the very laws the EPA is supposed to enforce.


To make matters worse, Pruitt did not renew terms for a number of respected members and even dismissed several independent scientists before their terms were up. All told, Pruitt shrunk the SAB from 47 to 42 participants and more than doubled the number of its polluter-friendly members.

Undermining the SAB's integrity might make sense to a former Oklahoma attorney general who openly promotes the interests of the fossil fuel industry. But doing so jeopardizes the independent science the agency needs to protect American health and safety.

Pruitt's Ill-Advised Appointments

The Science Advisory Board was established by Congress nearly 40 years ago as an impartial reality check. As Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), recently explained, the board "doesn't make policy recommendations or decisions. It holds no veto power. It should exist as a check on anyone with an agenda, from environmentalists to oil companies. If the science is on your side, the board validates it. If you make unsupportable claims, the board calls you out."

The SAB's role as "arbiter of scientific fact" has proven to be invaluable. Over the last five years, for instance, the board provided the EPA recommendations for integrating science more effectively into its decision making process; advised the agency on the best model to use when evaluating the health threats posed by perchlorate, a likely carcinogen; and determined that the EPA's preliminary finding that the hydraulic fracturing drilling process has not led to "widespread, systemic impacts" on drinking water resources was not supported by the best available science. The final version of the fracking study, released in December 2016, correctly concluded that the technique has indeed contaminated some drinking water supplies across the country.

As reconstituted by Pruitt, however, the SAB is more likely to come down in favor of industrial polluters than public health.

Take the new board chairman, Michael Honeycutt, who directs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's toxicology division. Over the last decade, Honeycutt rolled back the state's protections for 45 toxic chemicals, including arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde. He also attacked EPA rules for ground-level ozone (smog), which aggravates lung diseases, and particulate matter (PM) (soot), which has been linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular damage, reproductive problems and premature death. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence linking fine soot particles to premature death, Honeycutt testified before Congress that "some studies even suggest PM makes you live longer."

Many of Pruitt's other appointees to three-year terms on the SAB share a similar disregard for established science.

Kimberly White is senior director of chemical products at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the country's largest chemical manufacturing trade association. Representing the interests of 155 corporate members, including BP, Dow, DuPont and ExxonMobil, the ACC has delayed, weakened and blocked science-based health, environmental and workplace protections at the state, national and even international levels.

Samuel Cohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, produces industry-friendly papers and testimony for chemical companies and trade groups, including the American Chemistry Council. He has downplayed the risks of monosodium methanearsonate (MSMA) for the arsenic-based weed killer's manufacturers and testified on behalf of Dupont during a kidney cancer trial involving perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the main ingredient in Teflon.

Economist John D. Graham, who ran the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for five years during the George W. Bush administration, has a long history of emphasizing industry's costs to reduce pollution, while discounting scientific evidence of exposure risks and ignoring the benefits of a cleaner environment.

Anne Smith, a senior vice president at NERA Consulting, is another economist with a pronounced corporate bias. Over the past few years, NERA has written reports for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other industry trade groups arguing that the EPA underestimates the cost of its rules, including ones designed to lower mercury emissions and reduce ground-level ozone. In February 2015, Smith testified before Congress against the Clean Power Plan to curb coal-fired power plant carbon emissions.

Donald Van der Vaart, former secretary of North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, was the agency's point man against federal air quality rules, including a cap on nitrogen oxide emissions, a major component of ground-level ozone. Last November, he sent a letter to President-elect Trump denouncing "federal overreach" and asking him to all but eliminate the EPA. "By returning responsibility for implementing these laws to the states," Van der Vaart wrote, "your administration can avoid the agenda-driven federal regulatory process that has stifled our country's competitiveness."

Pruitt also enlisted Richard Smith and S. Stanley Young to serve on the board. The two statisticians co-authored an August 2017 study claiming there is "little evidence" of a connection between fine particulate pollution and premature death, ignoring established scientific understanding of air pollution and health risks. Three other appointees, meanwhile, directly represent the energy industry: Merlin Lindstrom is vice president of technology at Phillips 66, Robert Merritt was a geology manager at Total, and Larry Monroe was the chief environmental officer at Southern Company.

Independent Scientists Shut Out

Perhaps most shocking, Pruitt upended four decades of precedent by banning scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the SAB or any other agency advisory panel. Why? In Pruitt's estimation, they have a conflict of interest. He followed through by kicking at least a half-dozen EPA-funded scientists off the SAB before their terms were over.

Pruitt's attack on EPA grantees particularly rankled Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS and a former regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"The suggestion that federal research grants would conflict with advisory board work is frankly dishonest," Rosenberg said. "Pruitt is turning the idea of 'conflict of interest' on its head by claiming that federal research grants should exclude a scientist from an EPA advisory board while industry funding shouldn't. The truth is, EPA grants don't come with strings. They're meant to help promote the best independent science.

"Independent science is absolutely critical to making good policies that keep our air and water clean and our communities safe," he added. "But this administration—particularly Administrator Pruitt—seems to have taken every opportunity to cut science out. Pruitt's Halloween announcement is a blatant effort to stack the board and put narrow industry interests ahead of public health and safety. We will pursue all legal options available to us to prevent any scientist ban from remaining in place."

Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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