Scientists gather in ‘unprecedented’ rebuke to EPA

Source: By Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2019

What was billed as an extraordinary event launched this morning in the most mundane of surroundings: a neutral-toned conference room that featured scientific researchers seated around a makeshift table.

“We are here to talk about air quality,” Chris Frey, chairman of the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel, said at the outset of a two-day meeting that is effectively a rebuke to EPA’s handling of a high-stakes review of the standards for a common, but dangerous, pollutant.

Its 20 members, almost all of them from academia, had previously served on a comparable advisory panel for EPA, only to be summarily fired last fall by the agency’s then-acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler. They have now regrouped to take on the same role, albeit unofficially, with the help of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group critical of the Trump administration’s approach to science (Greenwire, Sept. 26).

“Today is unprecedented,” Gretchen Goldman, research head for the group’s Center for Science and Democracy, said in an opening statement. “Nothing like this has been done before. Nothing like this has ever been necessary.”

During the two-day meeting, which is taking place in a hotel just outside Washington, D.C., panel members will provide detailed feedback on a draft EPA assessment that found the existing standards for fine particulates may be too weak to prevent a “substantial number” of premature deaths. The panel’s conclusions will then be fashioned into a report for EPA.

It is intended to serve as a counterweight to the official process that members view as tilted against a balanced consideration of the evidence.

“We certainly hope to get the best expert opinion of the best experts on the science and policy issues … to better inform the agency,” Frey, a North Carolina State University environmental engineering professor, said in an interview beforehand.

Asked whether members have reached any conclusion as to whether changes to the existing limits are warranted, he replied: “We’ll have a better idea at the end of tomorrow.”

Fine particulates, technically known as PM2.5 because they are no more 2.5 microns in diameter, are linked to an array of heart and lung problems. Any tightening of the standards could result in added compliance costs for coal-fired power plants, refineries and other industrial operations.

This week’s meeting is public; the proceedings are being livestreamed on YouTube. Procedurally, it’s designed to parallel the mechanics used by EPA, including conflicts-of-interest reviews for the 20 members by a former agency staffer, with a retired agency attorney on hand today to offer legal counsel.

“Welcome to our alternate universe,” George Allen, another member, said in a separate interview.

An EPA spokeswoman previously said the agency welcomes public feedback. Allen, who is chief scientist for a Boston-based air quality consortium, saw no chance that the agency will consider the panel’s findings but said they could be a factor in litigation should an environmental group challenge the ultimate results of the official review.

As the gathering got underway, Frey also suggested it could serve as a forum to push back against broader changes the administration has made to the process for reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and five other pollutants.

Under the Clean Air Act, the agency is supposed to conduct those reviews every five years. In practice, the agency has rarely met that deadline.

In an abruptly announced May 2018 overhaul, however, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ordered completion of the review of the particulate matter standards by the end of 2020 — roughly two years ahead of the original schedule.

By that point, Pruitt had already imposed a new membership policy for EPA advisory panels that has since helped prompt a complete turnover on the seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). The group is statutorily charged with providing outside advice to EPA during the reviews.

In a tradition that dated back decades, the agency had also used adjunct advisory panels to furnish additional expertise for those assessments. But EPA dissolved the particulate matter review panel last fall in what Wheeler later described as a streamlining move.

Wheeler, who has since won Senate confirmation to lead the agency, instead opted to create a pool of a dozen consultants that can advise the CASAC only in writing. Almost half the pool’s members were nominated or endorsed by industry or agricultural trade groups, according to records obtained by E&E News this week under the Freedom of Information Act.

Members of the reconstituted panel are serving without pay, although the Union of Concerned Scientists is covering the travel expenses of those who are attending this week’s meeting in person. The meeting comes a year after Wheeler announced the disbanding of the original EPA panel (Greenwire, Oct. 12, 2018).