Senior official defends latest ‘secret science’ proposal

Source: By Kelsey Brugger, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A senior EPA official this morning rebutted media reports the agency was doubling down on a plan to limit scientific research from environmental and public health rulemaking.

Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, principal deputy assistant administrator for science, told lawmakers that recent news articles erroneously portrayed a leaked draft supplemental proposal, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.”

The documents, first reported by The New York Times on Monday, would require that information used in crafting regulations be publicly available.

“The key clarification is this is a supplement [proposal],” Orme-Zavaleta testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “It’s not a new rule.”

Much of today’s hearing, “Strengthening Transparency or Silencing Science? The Future of Science in EPA Rulemaking,” revolved around the recent news that EPA is advancing its proposal that has been slammed by public health and science groups.

Orme-Zavaleta, a career professional who has worked at EPA for 38 years, maintained EPA talking points that the agency is merely seeking to improve access to public data — a directive spanning multiple administrations. She asserted that the proposal would not apply to existing rules and regulations.

“We anticipate finalizing the proposed rule next year,” Orme-Zavaleta said, adding that she could not offer the timeline.

Committee Democrats pressed Orme-Zavaleta on her personal thoughts about the idea. They asked whether she thought career professionals had been excluded from the process. And they stressed the original proposal would allow the EPA administrator — a Cabinet member — too much authority.

“I am very worried EPA is ignoring its mission in an effort to make it easier for regulated industry,” said Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said.

Echoing critics in the scientific community, Johnson added that the rule would force the agency to ignore, for instance, epidemiological health studies.

Orme-Zavaleta declined to address multiple questions, emphasizing that the proposal was under review. She at times deferred to EPA legal experts.

House Republicans focused much of their questioning on what they called the inaccurate Times article. They lamented the hearing narrowed on the particular EPA rule rather than talking about the importance of transparency in science writ large.

GOP lawmakers have long supported legislation that would restrict federal agencies from relying on “secret science” when crafting rules. Those efforts have all failed, noted Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.).

Yesterday, EPA sent out a long press release debunking points in the New York Times article. Orme-Zavaleta said the reporting “confused” key points.

She said the purpose of the supplemental proposal — which was just sent to the White House for review — was merely to address the onslaught of public comments on the first iteration of the rule, first unveiled in April 2018. She said the leaked proposal was not in fact the actual text sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget.