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Wheeler claims he fired US EPA science advisers to meet Clean Air Act deadlines

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler on April 3 told lawmakers that he fired two advisory panels of scientific experts because they were preventing the EPA from meeting deadlines set by the Clean Air Act.

But a former senior EPA official who helped craft a series of Clean Air Act amendments predicted Wheeler's October 2018 decision to dismiss dozens of experts on particulate matter and ozone pollution could backfire.

Wheeler explained the move before a Senate subcommittee hearing on the administration's proposed 2020 EPA budget, which would slash the agency's funding by nearly a third below 2019 levels.

During the hearing, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., asked Wheeler about an April 2 op-ed in The Washington Post authored by Bernard Goldstein, a former chairman of the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Committee, or CASAC, who served under former President Ronald Reagan.

The piece, headlined "If I were still working at the EPA, I would resign," criticized Wheeler's move to terminate the particulate matter and ozone panels, noting the seven-member CASAC has relied on outside experts for more than 40 years to help review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS.

Chartered under the Clean Air Act, the CASAC's role is to help the EPA administrator review and decide every five years whether to revise or maintain the NAAQS for six different pollutants, including fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, and ozone. With the standards for PM 2.5 and ozone up for review again, the EPA aims to finalize those reviews by late 2020 under a "back-to-basics" approach outlined by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

"Why eliminate the panel of experts?" Van Hollen asked Wheeler, asserting the move looked like an attempt to exclude independent scientific expertise.

Wheeler said disbanding the review panels was necessary to help the EPA meet the Clean Air Act's five-year statutory timeline for NAAQS reviews. "Part of the problem was having the subcommittees, which are not required under the statute, took a lot of time to go back and forth between the subcommittee and the full CASAC committee," Wheeler said. The EPA has never completed a NAAQS review in five years or less, he noted.

'They sure didn't speed it up'

John Bachmann, a former associate director for science policy in the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said in an interview that Congress decided not to include the review panels in a series of amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 because their role was already well-established.

"Everyone knew that CASAC was supplemented by these specific panels," said Bachmann, who worked for the EPA from 1974 to 2007 and helped craft some of the 1990 amendments. The EPA was winning legal challenges under the existing NAAQS review process, and that's why Congress saw no reason to amend the statute, he said.

Bachmann added that reviewing the NAAQS is an inherently lengthy process because of the time needed to assess the latest science for six different pollutants on a rolling five-year basis. In addition, Bachmann cited a recent "explosion" in science on the health effects of exposure to PM 2.5 and ozone.

Tony Cox, the CASAC's current chairman, proposed language in a March 7 draft letter summarizing the EPA's latest 1,800-page Integrated Science Review on PM 2.5 that could exclude some public health studies from consideration. Cox, appointed by Pruitt in November 2017, has also conducted research for clients that include the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council.

However, seven Wheeler-appointed CASAC members agreed during a March 28 public teleconference that they lack the depth and breadth of experience needed to thoroughly review the latest science on PM 2.5. The language in the draft letter was also met with stiff resistance by Mark Frampton, a pulmonary doctor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and lone academic researcher on the committee, who suggested it sounded similar to a controversial scientific transparency rule proposed by Pruitt in April 2018.

Perhaps most telling will be how the EPA handles the committee's request for additional outside expertise, Bachmann said. He noted the agency could immediately reconvene the disbanded particulate matter experts because they have already been vetted for conflicts of interest. "If they don't do that, they'll be hand-picking people," he said.

In the meantime, Bachmann said the attempt to streamline the review could have the opposite effect. "They sacrificed the quality of the review process, but they sure didn't speed it up," he said.