EPA Doubles Down On Its Attempt to Censor Science

It’s been nearly two years since disgraced former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt unleashed an unprecedented attack on science. Pruitt is gone, but the agency is now doubling down by expanding the reach of its assault.

Credit: Sam Jotham Sutharson

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2018 censoring science proposal aimed to undercut the agency’s application of landmark public health science by severely restricting its use in decision making. The proposal was a dangerous disaster that lacked any sound legal basis and threatened to impose draconian and hugely costly restrictions on the types of scientific information eligible for consideration by EPA in implementing laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act. Those laws have delivered major health and economic benefits to the American public over the past 50 years, and that progress was put in direct peril because of this transparent attempt to undercut the evidence-based approach that has made environmental protection so effective in the U.S.

Because Pruitt’s 2018 proposal was so ill-conceived, it generated fierce opposition. More than 600,000 public comments submitted to EPA included criticism from scientists and health experts (like doctors and nurses, epidemiologists, and toxicologists) and everyday citizens who understood its potential to fundamentally weaken our nation’s public health safeguards by favoring industry-backed pseudoscience over consensus-based, peer-reviewed, established facts. NRDC submitted 127 pages of comments on the original proposal, outlining its numerous legal and scientific deficiencies—flaws that should’ve sent the proposal into the trash bin.

Instead, with former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler now running EPA, the agency yesterday proposed to expand the scope of the censoring science rule. In a wandering supplemental proposal, EPA reveals that it now intends to greatly expand, not retreat from, its science censorship agenda in key ways:

  • Broader definitions: EPA now says that its science censorship rule would apply to any “data and models” used by the agency to craft regulations. This change is a significant expansion of the net cast in the original proposal, which was limited to “dose-response data and models,” and it could weaken a wider range of current pollution controls across the country.
  • Arbitrary interference: The agency proposes to prioritize its consideration of certain scientific studies over others without clear criteria. That’s a recipe for bias and chaos in future EPA rulemaking, because there’s no clear explanation for how such important decisions will be made or implemented.
  • Veto power: The agency proposes to give the EPA administrator the authority to ignore the rule’s restrictions and make exceptions to allow for an unlimited number of handpicked studies to be considered. Moreover, the administrator would not need to provide any robust explanation for such a run-around.
  • Retroactive restrictions: EPA now says that it may apply the rule retroactively so that it could throw out the literally tens of thousands of studies that it has relied to craft environmental laws. This radical approach could upend the decades of gains we’ve made in national clean air and water protections and force us to start from scratch—meanwhile, restrictions on polluters could be significantly relaxed.

Amazingly, nearly two years after it first proposed this idea, the agency still doesn’t know what the legal authority it has to implement this fatally-flawed proposal. Instead, it’s asking the public to tell it what that is. This is absurd and, I believe, unprecedented. Agencies are supposed to be interpreting the law, not embarking on fanciful crusades and then trying to find a legal justification for their actions.

It’s no secret that the Trump administration despises science, whether it’s the factual evidence of accelerating climate change or the significant health dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than accept scientific facts and do their jobs, EPA’s political leaders prefer to close their eyes and reject established truths. By redoubling its efforts on science censorship and stacking the deck in favor of industry interests, the Trump EPA is putting the health of us all at risk.

4/2/20 Update: EPA has formally published the supplemental proposed rule, and you can submit comments here by May 18th.

About the Authors

Vijay Limaye

Science Fellow, Science Center
Blog Post

EPA's proposal jeopardizes the progress we've made in reducing air pollution and protecting the health of all Americans.

Blog Post

The inevitable and intended result is to gut our nation's health and environmental protections.

Blog Post

NRDC submitted comments telling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drop this unfounded and illegal idea.

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