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Experts form independent air pollution panel following dismissal by US EPA chief

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Experts form independent air pollution panel following dismissal by US EPA chief

Nearly a year after it was dissolved by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a self-organized panel of 20 leading air pollution experts will reconvene just outside of Washington, D.C., to perform its own review the latest science on particulate matter pollution.

For decades, outside panels of experts have aided the EPA's seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC, in advising the agency as it reviews the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, for six different criteria pollutants every five years. But that tradition was interrupted in October 2018 when Wheeler disbanded two outside panels of experts on fine particulate matter, which can make its way into the lungs and brain, and ozone, a key ingredient in smog.

Wheeler's move came as the Trump administration pursues a "back-to-basics" NAAQS review process outlined by Wheeler's predecessor, Scott Pruitt, that aims to complete reviews for both fine particulate matter and ozone by late 2020. Upon questioning, Wheeler told lawmakers he dissolved the panels because they were preventing the EPA from completing its statutory requirement of completing NAAQS reviews every five years.

Without the help of nearly two dozen outside experts, however, the current seven-member CASAC has struggled to review more than a thousand pages of scientific studies on the health effects of exposure to particulate matter. In April, the committee informed Wheeler that it lacked the depth and breadth of experience needed to perform an adequate review and asked that he reinstate the disbanded panels.

Wheeler rejected that request in July, instead of agreeing to provide an outside pool of outside subject matter experts. Questions remain about how those experts will communicate with the CASAC and whether that correspondence will occur in public formats.

Meanwhile, the disbanded members of the particulate matter review panel have formed an independent particulate matter review panel, according to a Sept. 26 news release from the Environmental Protection Network, an organization comprised of over 450 EPA alumni.

The panelists have undergone an ethics review by Chris Zarba, former director of the EPA's Science Advisory Board, who cleared the panel’s ethics review before it was dissolved in 2018, the Environmental Protection Network said. The group will convene Oct. 10 at a hotel in Arlington, Va., for a two-day meeting to conduct their own review of the latest science on particulate matter.

"This is the first time in the history of EPA where the credibility of the agency's science review process has been so compromised that an independent panel of experts has recognized the need for and will be conducting a comprehensive review," Zarba said in a statement.

The meeting follows a recent draft policy report released by EPA career staff that estimated about 50,000 soot-related deaths, including almost 20,000 heart disease deaths, occur annually nationwide at the current NAAQS for that pollutant. In 2012, the EPA strengthened the annual standard for PM 2.5 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter, down from the previous standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter. That decision, which withstood a legal challenge from a coalition of electric utilities, was supported by the agency's Integrated Science Assessment, a 1,000-page research document covering the most recent scientific findings on fine particulate matter at the time.

"Our panel has more breadth, depth, and diversity of expertise than the CASAC, and more experience with NAAQS review than the CASAC," said former CASAC Chair Chris Frey, an environmental engineering professor at North Carolina State University. "With regard to the scope of issues that will be considered by the panel, we will also develop advice regarding whether to retain or revise the current particulate matter air quality standards."

The panel's two-day meeting will conclude with a report on whether the current particulate matter standard is adequate to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety and, if not, offering recommendations for a new standard. That report will be made available in advance of the current CASAC's two-day meeting in North Carolina scheduled to begin Oct. 24.

An EPA spokesman said Sept. 26 that the agency is committed to scientific integrity and transparency. "EPA has the utmost confidence in its career scientist and the members on its science advisory boards and panels," the spokesman said in an email. "EPA routinely takes comments from the public and outside organizations, including those not employed or associated with EPA, and will continue to take into consideration those comments that meet our scientific standards."