The EPA’s War Against Science, Part III

January 25, 2019

The U.S. Senate is now considering President Trump’s nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be EPA Administrator.  Since Wheeler has been very active in the role of Acting Administrator for the past six months, it is quite clear from his performance how he would direct the EPA in the future.  We belong to a group of Concerned Scientists @ Indiana University, with more than 1100 members who consider that future direction sufficiently worrisome that we have written a joint letter to Senators urging rejection of the nomination.  We reproduce that letter below, as it documents the continuing EPA war against science.

Reject Andrew Wheeler as EPA Administrator

Our group of Concerned Scientists at Indiana University (CSIU) urges U.S. Senators to vote against the confirmation of Andrew Wheeler as EPA Administrator. CSIU is a non-partisan community organization consisting of over 1100 members—scientists, students, and supporters of science—from the south-central Indiana region. While many of our members are faculty, students or staff at Indiana University, our organization does not officially represent the University. CSIU is dedicated to strengthening the essential role of science in public policy and evidence-based decision making. We are writing here, specifically to comment on the importance of scientific judgment in leadership of one of the principal U.S. scientific agencies.

In our judgment Andrew Wheeler, during the six months he has served as Acting Administrator of the EPA, has clearly demonstrated a commitment to suppress scientific input into Agency policy, in order to favor the fossil fuel, and particularly the coal, industry at the expense of public health and welfare. That commitment alone should disqualify him from heading the Agency.

Through its nearly 50-year history, the Environmental Protection Agency has stood out as a global leader in environmental and public health protection. Prior to its establishment in 1970 life expectancy in the U.S. had leveled off and the nation had seen more than a decade of environmental disasters, ranging from acid rain and toxic pollutants to urban air smog and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire. In the years since, EPA regulations have vastly improved the quality of air we breathe and water we drink, and U.S. life expectancy has increased by 8 years. Some of these trends are evident Fig. 1 below.

epa impacts
Figure 1.  Data on U.S. life expectancy vs. year from 1900 to 2009 (left frame) and on the percentage reductions in various air pollutants achieved by EPA regulations from 1980 to 2013 (right frame).

But the administrations of Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler have deeply weakened the EPA in its role as the chief environmental science research organization and a major protector of public health. Although EPA has seen less evidence of corruption since the replacement of Scott Pruitt, Wheeler has been even more ruthlessly efficient, as Acting Administrator, in disregarding scientific input and the EPA’s statutory responsibility “to promote the public health and welfare.” President Trump now proposes to remove Acting from Wheeler’s title and the Senate began confirmation hearings on this nomination on January 16, 2019.

Wheeler’s performance as Acting Administrator tells us more about his future policies than his carefully calibrated responses during his confirmation hearing. In six months in the Acting role, Wheeler has overseen proposals: to roll back fuel efficiency standards, gradually developed through years of bipartisan compromise;1 to replace the Clean Power Plan with a woefully inadequate alternative permitting far higher future carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants;2 to relax guidelines for power plant emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollutants;3 to dramatically narrow the definition of “waters of the U.S.” in applying the Clean Water Act;4 and for the EPA Administrator to intervene5 in drafting the next National Climate Assessment, to make the imminent dangers of human-induced climate change less apparent than the 2018 Assessment.6

Scientific research7 clearly establishes that each of these regulatory rollbacks would endanger the health of the American public and lead to an increase in premature deaths. The EPA’s own documentation accompanying their proposal to replace the Clean Power Plan admits that that proposal alone would likely cause 1400 more premature American deaths annually (a likely underestimate), but it buries this information in the proposal itself under the dry rhetoric of “foregone benefits.”

Wheeler is committed to not letting science stand in the way of acceding to industry desires. He has eliminated the Office of Science Advisor to the EPA Administrator;8 has disbanded or refused to appoint scientific review boards advising on health issues related to particulate matter and ground level ozone in the air;9 has replaced most members of the Congressionally mandated Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council with his hand-picked non-scientist cronies;10 has continued Pruitt’s directive to bar scientists with any EPA funding from advisory committees;11 and has questioned both climate change and the link between fine particulate matter and Americans’ health.12,13

Our CSIU group has submitted comments rebutting several of the regulatory rollbacks proposed under Wheeler, arguing in detail that they are based on flawed legal interpretations and unbalanced cost/benefit analyses.14,15 These proposals may well be held up from taking effect for years as courts weigh Agency responses to the flood of negative public comments.

If the proposals do take effect, Americans’ health may suffer significantly. As one example, Correia and collaborators16 surveyed data from 545 U.S. counties to demonstrate that doubling atmospheric concentrations of fine particulate matter is clearly correlated with a loss of two years in life expectancy (see Fig. 2 below). Wheeler discredits such science, apparently following the lead17 of electric power and coal industries that claim excessive (and often overblown18) financial burdens from regulations to reduce emissions of fine particulate matter, mercury, arsenic, carbon dioxide and other well established pollutants.

life expectancy vs pm2.5
Figure 2.  Data compiled by Correia, et al. (reference 16) on the life expectancy in 545 U.S. counties, as correlated with the concentration level of fine particulate matter in the air in those counties.  Corrections were made for lifestyle differences among the counties, e.g., in the incidence of smoking.  The straight lines in each frame represent the best-fit linear correlation of life expectancy with fine particulate matter level.

In effect, former coal industry lobbyist Wheeler is asking the American public to sacrifice a few years of life expectancy so that he can prop up a dying industry, an industry that will have to be largely replaced over coming decades in order to avoid severe climate change consequences. Wheeler’s confirmation should be soundly rejected by the U.S. Senate.

1. Newsweek, August 2, 2018
2. Fortune, August 21, 2018
3. New York Times, December 28, 2018
4. Scientific American, December 11, 2018
5. Politico, November 28, 2018
6. Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volumes I and II, November 2018
7. Scott Waldman, The EPA’s Climate Rollbacks Could Mean Thousands of Premature Deaths, Scientific American, October 2, 2018
8. New York Times, September 27, 2018
9. Sean Reilly, Trump’s EPA Scraps Air Pollution Science Review Panels, Science Magazine, October 12, 2018
10. ThinkProgress, October 11, 2018
11. Warren Cornwall, Trump’s EPA Has Blocked Agency Grantees from Serving on Science Advisory Panels, Science Magazine, October 31, 2017
12. Bloomberg Environment and Energy News, December 4, 2018
13. Jason Plautz, Trump’s Air Pollution Adviser Actually Said that Clean Air Saves No Lives, Mother Jones, October 27, 2018
14. CSIU Comment on Proposed EPA Rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science”
15. CSIU Comment on Proposed EPA “Affordable Clean Energy” Rule
16. A.W. Correia, et al., “Effect of Air Pollution Control on Life Expectancy in the United States,” Epidemiology 24, 23 (2013).
17. New York Times, August 1, 2018
18. PJM Interconnection, “EPA’s Final Clean Power Plan Compliance Pathways Economic and Reliability Analysis,” September 1, 2016