New bills could change environmental policy and EPA procedure

By Seema Vithlani

Two potential new bills sponsored by Republicans in the House of Representatives could alter how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes policy decisions.

The Secret Science Reform Act of 2015, which passed the House on March 18, would limit the private sources and data the EPA could use to create regulations. In an effort to prevent the use of flawed research, the bill would require that the science used be “transparent and reproducible.”

“We aren't telling the EPA what to do,” the AAAS quoted Rep. Kevin McCarty (R-CA) saying. “But … true science demands clarity and impartiality.”

Some, however, are concerned that this bill could take away the use of otherwise credible data and reduce the amount of overall information the EPA can work with.

Dr. Melissa Kenney, an environmental decision scientist at ESSIC who has collaborated with the EPA in the past, is worried that limiting available data would not allow for the best policy decisions to be made. One major concern she has is that certain large-scale studies cannot be easily reproduced.

“For incredibly expensive projects — if you need to reproduce the data — that could simply be too cost-prohibitive,” said Kenney.

Kenney added that certain private data could not be made public. This concern, mirrored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in a 2014 letter, involves data protected by law, including health records.

Another concern is that some data cannot be reproduced at all. Single events, for instance, such as oil spills and natural catastrophes, require gathering of real-time data.

“One of the things that has to be recognized is that science is a rigorous process, and it evolves over time,” said Kenney. “That doesn’t mean because there’s uncertainty with things that the best decisions aren’t being made.”

The other bill, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2015, would influence the operations of the Science Advisory Board, a group that advises the EPA on the science it uses.

The new legislation, which also passed in the House and is pending in Senate, would allow those having ties to outside corporations to serve on the board, so long as they disclose this association. It would also prevent members from reviewing anything directly or indirectly related to their own work, unless their work had been "externally peer-reviewed", and their expertise was publicly disclosed.

The Union of Concerned Scientists expressed in a letter that this could allow for corporate influence, compromising the independent nature of the EPA’s analysis.

The letter also said the bill would make it difficult for experts to participate in discussion of their field of knowledge. While the 2015 bill does allow for experts with peer-reviewed, published work to contribute, the union said the language was “vague”.

“I think it should be a concern when a group is trying to limit someone from speaking about what they’re most expert in,” Kenney said.

Statements set out by the Executive Office of the President indicated that the administration strongly opposed both bills.

The Science Advisory Board bill, according to one statement, would interfere with the ability of the EPA to carry out its functions and would limit the inclusion of experts in discussions relevant to their fields.

Another statement said the Secret Science bill “would undermine EPA's ability to protect the health of Americans, would impose expensive new mandates on EPA, and … could impede EPA's reliance on the best available science.”

The statements warned that the president would likely veto the bills if passed by the House and Senate.