EPA fight against 'secret science' slowed amid pushback from researchers

PHOTO: Andrew Wheeler waits as he is introduced to address staff at the administrations headquarters in Washington, July 11, 2018.PlayPete Marovich/The New York Times via Redux, FILE
WATCH SPECIAL REPORT: EPA chief Scott Pruitt has resigned

A furious public response has slowed down the Trump administration's plan to stop using so-called "secret science," a move that scientists complained could have restricted the types of research used to regulate toxins, pesticides and pollution.

Six months ago, then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt said his agency would demand that raw data behind every study is made public before being used to regulate the environment.

"Americans deserve to assess the legitimacy of the science underpinning EPA decisions that may impact their lives," he said at the time.

The scientific community was outraged. They noted that such a rule could knock out from consideration studies that use patient medical records that can be critical to drawing links between the environment and public health, such as air pollution. Such records must be kept confidential under the law.

Pruitt later resigned under a cloud of ethical inquiries, including allegations that he struck a sweetheart real estate deal with a lobbyist. He was replaced by his deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.

On Wednesday, the EPA listed the rule as long-term, meaning it doesn't expect to "publish an action within the next 12 months," according to EPA spokesman Michael Abboud.

He later said the agency is working as expeditiously as possible on the rule and could move on it sooner, but said it has to respond to more than half a million comments and complete the rest of the official process before the rule is final.

The EPA was inundated with 597,000 written comments in just three months and a July 17 hearing involved nearly 100 speakers on the subject, including members of Congress. Officials said they didn’t want to rush the review process and don't have a set deadline for the rule.

"This is not a delay," said Abboud. "The agency is continuing its internal rulemaking development process for this action. The spring agenda gave no deadline on a final rule."

Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA under President Barack Obama, said the proposed rule could undermine rules intended to protect public health because the studies used to support those rules rely on private health data.

"Don’t be fooled by this talk of transparency. [Pruitt] and some conservative members of Congress are setting up a nonexistent problem in order to prevent the E.P.A. from using the best available science," McCarthy wrote in a New York Times op-ed with the former head of the EPA's air office.

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