The Environmental Protection Agency announced long-expected plans on Tuesday to stop using “secret science” — meaning studies that don’t make all of their data publicly available — when making rules.
Because this science includes medical studies with confidential patient information, it effectively means that the agency would restrict the public health research that’s now used to support pollution laws.
EPA chief Scott Pruitt announced the proposal at a closed-door event at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC, calling it a big step forward for increasing transparency at the agency. It comes as he faces growing scrutiny from Congress, the White House, and government watchdogs for his travel, spending, and treatment of staff on the job.
According to the proposal, which will go through a public comment period, the EPA wants to increase public access to the data and mathematical models used for regulations, and possibly also the data used for permitting and enforcement efforts.
The proposal echoes multiple legislative attempts by Republicans in Congress — the HONEST Act of 2016 and the Secret Science Reform Acts of 2014 and 2015 — to require the agency to publicly share all the underlying data in the science studies it uses.
The last two proposals were made by Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Science Committee, and they failed to pass in Congress. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s review of the 2015 proposed rule, implementing the bill would cost about $250 million a year for multiple years — working out to between $10,000 and $30,000 for each study used.
“This is really a great day,” Pruitt said on Tuesday, adding, “It’s a banner day because it represents us taking action here at the agency based upon the work” of Rep. Lamar Smith and others.
Smith attended the event, as did members of conservative groups such as the Heartland Institute and the Institute for Energy Research. “Administrator Pruitt’s announcement ensures data will be secret no more,” Smith said.
Scientists strongly oppose the new rule. On Monday, 985 scientists signed a letter to Pruitt slamming the proposal, raising concerns about how it would limit the use of peer-review scientific studies and science conducted by other parts of the government.
This view was shared by two top officials at the EPA during the Obama administration.
“This approach would undermine the nation’s scientific credibility,” former EPA officials Gina McCarthy and Janet McCabe wrote in a New York Times editorial. “And should Mr. Pruitt reconsider regulations now in place, this new policy could be a catalyst for the unraveling of existing public health protections if the studies used to justify them could no longer be used by E.P.A.”
Some House Democrats also criticized the proposal. “Republicans weren’t able to get their ‘secret science’ bills signed into law, but now they have Administrator Pruitt to do the bidding of industry at the EPA,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat and ranking member on the House Science Committee, said in a statement.
Some current EPA employees, joined by activists and Democrats in Congress, plan to rally against Pruitt in Washington, D.C. during their lunch hour on Wednesday.
In the months leading up the rule announcement, EPA staff were concerned about how the proposal would impact the agency’s use and review of confidential company data that’s proprietary. That’s according to internal emails released in a Freedom of Information Request to the science advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists. Agency emails also showed that EPA officials also discussed the proposal with staffers on the House Science Committee.
Pruitt first announced his intention to make this change last month in an interview with conservative news site the Daily Caller. He will face questions about the EPA’s budget and his spending at two congressional hearings this week.