As our nation just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, the Trump EPA continues to undermine the public health protections created by this critically important statute, signing a rule that would limit the Agency’s discretion to consider and weigh the value of public health research studies in its decision-making.
The rule, known to many as the Censoring Science rule, restricts the Agency’s discretion to freely rely on the best scientific evidence of the harms to human health from pollution—including epidemiological studies showing the linkage between air pollution exposures and lung diseases, hospitalizations, and even early deaths. This rule would require the Agency to give “lesser consideration” to peer-reviewed studies with underlying data that must be kept confidential and could undermine the value of foundational research like the Harvard Six Cities and American Cancer Society studies. Many other studies have also built upon and reinforced the direct link between pollution exposures and significant public health damages, including research based on the publicly available Medicare cohort. By failing to give critically important studies appropriate consideration, EPA would be devaluing and underestimating the considerable public health benefits of air regulations that reduce both conventional and climate pollution.
Today’s action is a frustrating and disappointing effort to lock in the Trump Administration’s political agenda at the expense of the health of Americans, and during what should be a cooperative transition period to a new administration. But sadly, this is not a surprise. The Trump EPA has been a particularly egregious offender in this area lately, with the Agency rushing out a number of rules that, if allowed to stand, would have the effect of inhibiting future efforts to provide the public health benefits of clean air.
This particular rule has a long history, having been the subject of a bill that was defeated in Congress in 2015, then resurfaced in 2018 and again this year as a regulatory proposal. As reported in The New York Times, it also prompted a recently retired senior EPA scientist to issue a scientific opinion concluding that the rule “will compromise the scientific integrity of our scientists, the validity of our rulemaking, and possibly the health of the American People.”
”This rule does not ‘strengthen’ transparency in science,” said Hayden Hashimoto, Attorney with Clean Air Task Force. “Instead, this rule is about straitjacketing the Agency’s reliance on human health studies demonstrating the connection between pollution and health, so as to prevent or delay further actions to improve public health,” he said.
Indeed, the rule provides no new incentives or funding to help scientists disseminate their research or enable access to data where that is allowed—much of the data in studies likely to be affected is given by patients on terms requiring confidentiality. Contrary to promoting sound science in agency decision-making, the rule would force scientists into the impossible position of having to violate confidentiality agreements with study participants in order for their work to receive the consideration it deserves in the Agency’s decision-making.
“It is not just misleading, but shameful that this administration has touted air quality improvements that are largely attributable to policies enacted under the Obama Administration, while actively seeking to undermine those benefits, through rules like this one and the recently finalized and convoluted benefit-cost analysis requirements for significant regulatory actions,” said Hashimoto.
Arbitrary and inflexible restrictions on the Agency’s regulatory work not only threaten to impair EPA’s ability to fulfill its duty under the Clean Air Act (and other statutes) to protect and preserve public health and the environment, they run afoul of legal requirements that the Agency must rely on the best available science in its decision-making.
Looking forward, while legal action may be warranted, we are optimistic that the Biden Administration will take swift action to remove this unnecessary, unwarranted, and unlawful procedural obstacle to science-based policy at EPA, rebuild the Agency’s capabilities, and that 2021 will again see the prioritization of America’s environment and Americans’ health over favoritism to industrial and fossil fuel interests.