NRDC Fights Dangerous Science Censorship Plan at EPA

NRDC is standing up to EPA and defending the science that helps to protect our health.

EPA's science censorship plan would enable more dangerous pollution in the air we breathe (Credit: Billy Willson via Flickr)

As the coronavirus continues to impose significant health and economic hardship and disrupt daily life, it is becoming ever clearer that federal leaders should rely on the best available science to make decisions that affect our health. 

Yet, even in the midst of a global health crisis, the Trump administration is rushing forward with a dangerous plan to censor critical scientific research – like medical studies, personal health data, and clinical reports – severely limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to set stronger limits on pollution that protect our health, our environment, and our clean air and water.

EPA’s Pro-Pollution Blitz

It’s both ironic and harrowing that EPA is renewing its push to finalize a dangerous science censorship plan in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a generation. Despite preliminary evidence indicating higher death rates from the coronavirus in areas with more polluted air, and the need for access to clean water to be able to wash hands, stay home and protect communities from this virus, Trump's EPA has recently:

  • Refused to set stronger limits on deadly soot air pollution, in defiance of a finding from EPA’s own scientists that better protections could help to avoid 12,500 deaths each year.
  • Weakened critical public health protections by inviting industrial polluters to stop monitoring and reporting dangerous air and water pollution, and to potentially exceed industrial pollution limits without repercussions. NRDC’s recent analysis has identified millions of people put in harm's way because of this free pass to polluters.
  • Finalized plans to gut the Clean Water Act that helps protect water bodies that feed drinking water sources for millions of people.
  • Rolled back lifesaving clean car standards – strong tailpipe pollution limits for automobiles that have reduced massive amounts of toxic air and climate pollution from the nation’s cars and trucks.

If Trump’s EPA is granted the power to censor science, it could leverage it to roll back even more critical public health protections.

A Reckless Proposal

Two years ago, after former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt first proposed this censorship plan, it was met with a chorus of opposition and more than 600,000 public comments. NRDC submitted 127 pages of comments explaining why EPA’s ill-advised plan should be withdrawn. Rather than scrapping the proposal, EPA attempted to clean up its mess by issuing a supplemental proposal in March of this year that essentially expanded the scope of the original plan, despite no clear legal justification for its approach.

EPA then gave the public just a few weeks to submit public comments, and refused to extend the deadline despite the coronavirus pandemic, a national emergency of historic proportions. Even as the new proposal has prompted strong opposition from scientists,  health advocacy groups like the American Lung Association and American Public Health Association, and members of Congress, EPA refused to hold even a single public hearing for its new proposal.

But we didn’t let EPA off the hook from its obligation to consider public input, because we know that our elected leaders need to listen to science, not censor it. Last month, a coalition of environmental groups led by the Union of Concerned Scientists organized a virtual public hearing with 41 people providing oral testimony and more than 100 viewers:

NRDC Is Challenging EPA’s Attacks on Science

Since that hearing, NRDC’s team of scientists, lawyers, and advocates has been working to explain the many serious flaws contained in this proposal. Yesterday, NRDC submitted comments to EPA explaining why its proposal has no legal or technical basis. Our analysis of EPA’s latest proposal has uncovered dozens of problems that should disqualify it from ever being put into action.

For example, EPA is distorting a little-used law from 1966 to try and justify this rollback:

This undeniable legal vulnerability embedded in the proposal is demonstrated by the fact that EPA asked the public to identify a legal rationale for the proposal.

Beyond highlighting the lack of any sound legal basis for the proposal, our comments point to the potential for this proposal to critically weaken and reverse existing science-based public health protections in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other key environmental laws.

Specifically, our comments highlight and explain the many fatal flaws with EPA’s updated science censorship plan, including:

  • EPA’s radical expansion of the science censorship plan to apply to any “data and models” that EPA uses to make decisions that affect our health;
  • EPA’s failure to acknowledge the damage that would be caused through the proposal’s retroactive censorship of scientific studies that have been relied upon by EPA in the past to establish today’s important health safeguards;
  • A misguided plan for EPA to give greater consideration to certain scientific studies over others, a recipe for bias and political interference;
  • EPA’s inability to answer key questions about how patient confidentiality can be protected when health studies are made public;
  • A back-door mechanism that allows for the EPA Administrator to circumvent the rule and hand-pick which studies the agency must consider;
  • The lack of an opportunity for EPA’s Science Advisory Board to weigh in fully on the plan;
  • EPA’s lack of consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before publishing its plan, even though it expects the CDC to help it implement this misguided and radical effort.

In addition to our comments, members of NRDC’s Activist Network have also raised their voices in opposition to EPA’s reckless plan by submitting more than 114,000 comments directly to EPA.

NRDC’s Defense of Science and Public Health Protections

Because EPA’s latest proposal to censor science has the potential to undermine so many of our nation’s public health protections and potentially enable similar attacks on science at other federal agencies, NRDC and its members and activists are sparing no effort to fight it tooth and nail. Our government must rely on the best available evidence to guide health and environmental policy, because a failure to do so puts us all in danger. As our President and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy recently put it, “You ignore science at your own peril.”

About the Authors

Vijay Limaye

Staff Scientist, Science Center

John Walke

Director, Clean Air, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Emily Davis

Senior Attorney, Climate & Clean Energy Program
Blog Post

EPA now intends to greatly expand its science censorship agenda.

Blog Post

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

Blog Post

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

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