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EPA’s latest rush to deregulate turns into open resistance from staff

WASHINGTON – President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency was rushing to complete one of its latest regulatory priorities, aimed at blocking the creation of air and water pollution controls in the future, when a career senior scientist decided to hinder it.

Thomas Sinks ran the EPA’s science advisory office and then managed the agency’s rules and data around research involving people. Ahead of his retirement in September, he decided to issue a dazzling official notice that the pending rule – which would force the agency to ignore or downgrade any medical research that did not expose its raw data – would jeopardize U.S. public health. .

“If this rule were to be finalized, it would create chaos,” said Dr Sinks in an interview in which he admitted to writing the opinion which had been obtained by The New York Times. “I thought this was going to lead to a train accident and I had to speak up.”

Two months away from the Trump administration, career EPA employees find themselves where they started, in a bureaucratic battle with the agency’s political leaders. But now, with the Biden administration on the horizon, they are encouraged to thwart Mr. Trump’s goals and do so more openly.

Filing a “dissenting scientific opinion” is an unusual decision; this signals that Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the EPA, and his politically appointed deputies did not listen to the objections of career scientists when developing the regulations. Even more critically, by bringing the criticism within the framework of the Trump administration’s official record on the new rule, Dr. Sink’s dissent will offer Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s EPA administrator a powerful weapon to repeal the so-called policy. of “secret science”.

This month, career EPA employees also quietly emailed the results of a new study that found owners of half a million diesel pickup trucks had illegally removed their emissions control technology, resulting in a considerable increase in air pollution. And some EPA staff have engaged in side-to-side conversations with the president-elect’s transition team as they waited for Mr. Trump to formally approve the official start of the presidential transition, two employees of the President-elect admitted. ‘agency.

Current and former EPA staff and advisers close to the transition said Mr Biden’s team had focused on preparing for a swift assault on the Trump administration’s deregulatory legacy and the re-establishment of air and water protection and methane emission controls.

“They are laser-focused on what I call the ‘Humpty Dumpty approach’, which puts the agency back on its feet,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator who served in administration. Obama.

The transition team is particularly focused on renewing efforts to tackle climate change, which had been crushed by the Trump administration and ridiculed by Mr. Wheeler as a mere “signal of virtue” to foreign countries. There are also plans to reorganize the science advisory boards which Mr Wheeler and his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, had stacked with allies in private industry and had purged many university scientists.

“They seem hyper-focused on what it will take to get things back on track,” said Chris Zarba, former director of the EPA’s science advisory board, adding, “I think they’re going to do a full reset. “

Racing against those efforts is Mr Wheeler, who has a long list of priorities that aides and confidants have said he is determined to complete before inauguration day on January 20. He has also legally maneuvered to erect time-consuming obstacles that Mr. Biden will have to clear to untie certain policies of the Trump administration.

At the top of Mr. Wheeler’s to-do list is finalizing the science rule, officially called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science”.

By virtue of this, the agency should reject or give less weight to scientific studies that fail to disclose all of their raw data to the public. Mr Wheeler says opponents of the rule prefer regulatory decisions to be made in “a back room, a proverbial smoke-filled room.”

But thousands of medical and scientific organizations say the plan would cripple the EPA’s ability to create new air and water protections, as people who participate in epidemiological or long-term studies on the health workers who review exposure to toxins generally only participate if their personal health information is kept. private.

The EPA under Mr. Wheeler has argued that it can create data protections to secure personal information such as personal addresses and medical records. But Dr Sinks, who was the agency’s only scientist to work to establish this data security, said the agency lacks the technical expertise and funding to be successful.

“Research involving human subjects is the most predictive data for establishing the impact on human health of environmental exposures,” wrote Dr. Sinks, adding, “Any rule or guideline that diminishes or eliminates high-quality research from the taking into account in the development of the rules results in poorly developed rules. “

Thomas A. Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who served as EPA science adviser in the Obama administration, expressed amazement at Dr Sinks’ dissent.

“It says a lot about the failure of the process and the failure of the administration to listen to not only that one person, but also the broader scientific leadership in the United States,” he said. Mr Burke called the rule a “thinly veiled dream rule for polluters”

James Hewitt, a spokesperson for the EPA, said in a statement that Dr Sinks’ objections were “irrelevant.” He accused Dr Sinks, without presenting any evidence, of failing to follow the agency’s “communication of concerns protocol” and also said that Dr Sinks did not read the most recent version of the rule. before filing his dissent. Mr Hewitt also did not explain why such a senior scientist in career had not received the final version of the regulations.

“The purpose of the Scientific Transparency Rule is to codify internal procedural requirements on how the EPA will take into account the availability of data upon which it relies in developing its important final regulatory actions and influential scientific information,” Mr Hewitt said.

In recent months, Wheeler has also sidestepped his promise to the EPA Inspector General to respond to accusations by more than 250 employees of political interference in science under the administration. Trump.

Mr Wheeler had agreed to determine the reasons for concerns about a culture of disregard for scientific integrity and the agency’s “tone at the top” by September 30.

Instead, he released a memo in November affirming the agency’s support for its 2012 scientific integrity policy. But even that document has been watered down. The final version removed language that guaranteed science would occur “without political interference, without coercion from scientists, or without regard to the implications of risk management,” according to a change tracking document reviewed by The New York Times.

In a statement, Hewitt said the note did not affect the underlying scientific integrity policy.

Of Mr. Wheeler’s broader agenda over the next two months, he said, “The EPA continues to advance this administration’s commitment to meaningful environmental progress while moving forward with our regulatory reform agenda. “

The EPA is also expected to finalize a rule on industrial soot pollution, which is linked to respiratory illnesses, including those caused by the coronavirus, in the coming weeks. The rule is expected to leave in place a 2012 standard for fine soot from smoke stacks and tailpipes, known as PM 2.5, ignoring EPA’s own scientists, who wrote the year Last that the existing rule contributes about 45,000 deaths a year from respiratory illnesses, and this tightening could save about 10,000 of those lives.

In April, a study published by Harvard researchers linked long-term soot exposure to Covid-19 death rates. The study found that a person living for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15% more likely to die from the coronavirus than a person living in an area with one unit less fine particulate pollution .

And last month, the agency finalized a rule that creates a lengthy new legal process to override or withdraw certain policy directives known as “guidance documents,” which give federal agencies direction on how to law enforcement.

Such policy documents can give an administration some authority to interpret laws in a way that advances their political agenda. For example, the EPA, under the Trump administration, released a guidance document that allows oil and gas companies to release flares from their wells up to 15 minutes at a time before regulations apply. – a process that releases methane, a powerful greenhouse that warms the planet. gas.

Another guidance document allows polluting entities with multiple adjacent polluting buildings on the same site, such as power plants and factories, to report separate buildings as smaller individual pollution sources, rather than reporting pollution levels. site-wide totals. This could allow polluters to avoid pollution control requirements that would be triggered by reporting the greatest amount of pollution attributed to the larger site.

These types of documents are not legally binding, but they are the official policy of a government agency until they are formally withdrawn or amended. Under the new guidance document rule, the EPA is expected to formally issue new regulations to withdraw guidance – a lengthy legal process that can take months or even years, meaning that until ‘it is complete, these Trump guidance documents will remain unchanged. official policies of the Biden administration.

Jody Freeman, professor of environmental law at Harvard and former adviser to the Obama administration, called the rule a “small IED”, referring to an improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb, aimed at slow down a Biden administration’s plans to overthrow Mr. Trump’s rules.

“Shenanigans like this are what awaits Biden’s team,” she said.

Coral Davenport contributed reporting.

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