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EPA chief takes aim at agency use of 'secret science'

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to overhaul the scientific process the agency uses in evaluating the need for and crafting new regulations.

The EPA made the announcement March 20 in an official news release, which republished an interview Pruitt gave to the Daily Caller — a media outlet co-founded by conservative FOX News host Tucker Carlson. Specifically, the EPA will end its use of so-called "secret science," which refers generally to studies that rely on information that is not made available to the public.

"If we use a third party to engage in scientific review or inquiry, and that's the basis of rulemaking, you and every American citizen across the country deserve to know what's the data, what's the methodology that was used to reach that conclusion," Pruitt said.

The proposal appears to be adopted from legislation introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, which similarly pledged to tackle the EPA's use of secret science. Although the legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2017, it has not been picked up by the U.S. Senate.

But one critic of Pruitt's plan said it will preclude the EPA from using public health surveys in its regulatory process and thereby avoid addressing important health threats. According to Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Center for Science and Democracy, participants in those surveys typically are assured that their information will be kept anonymous unless they give prior and informed consent. He named the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and National Ambient Air Quality Standards as rules that relied on public health data to show the impact of the regulated pollutants.

Another problem, according to Rosenberg, is that scientists sometimes are leery of releasing all the data associated with a study because it then can be repackaged by industry groups to cast doubt on the original study's findings.

"There's great reason to have information made public as much as it can be made public, but you shouldn't preclude the agency from using high quality scientific evidence because of some false requirement that has nothing to do really with the scientific process," Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg further expressed concern that the change would disallow any scientific studies based on a proprietary model, even if that model has been very well peer reviewed and carefully analyzed, but might not impose similar restrictions on studies conducted by industry stakeholders. Smith's legislation would have allowed an exception for industry data to protect confidential business information, and Rosenberg predicted the EPA's new policy will similarly allow industry stakeholders to keep their data private when used for a regulatory action.

The EPA declined to comment specifically on the policy change and referred S&P Global Market Intelligence to the Daily Caller article for more information.