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Science takes a back seat at Trump’s EPA | Editorial

A proposed rule masquerades as transparency when it actually is a favor to polluters.
Exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal in Thompsons, Texas. [Associated Press]
Exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal in Thompsons, Texas. [Associated Press]
Published Nov. 15, 2019

The Trump administration continues to undercut science at the expense of public health. The latest version of a proposed new rule by the Environmental Protection Agency would severely limit the scientific and medical research that forms the basis of public health regulations. This is another attack on facts and a victory for polluters that will only expose Americans to dirtier water and air.

Under a rule the EPA initially proposed in 2018, the agency no longer would consider scientific research unless the underlying data could be made publicly available for peer and industry groups to review. The agency claims the effort, which it calls "Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” would boost public confidence in federal regulations by ensuring that the science used in the rule-making process was publicly vetted and verified.

But this is a Trojan Horse that would keep valuable science from the pipeline and allow the nation’s polluters to exploit the vacuum. Many critical studies that connect public health crises to corporate behavior rely on personal health records obtained under patient confidentiality. Without this research, there is no way the EPA could responsibly balance public health as it regulates the nation’s natural resources. Big business would win and the losers would be those Americans suffering from cancer, asthma and other conditions worsened by environmental contaminants.

The EPA insists it could replicate these studies while maintaining patient privacy. But a panel of health experts testifying before a House committee Wednesday called that naive and unworkable, pointing to the costs of redacting patient information and the challenge of protecting personal records in an era of Big Data. The proposed rule, these experts said, would lead to thousands of studies being excluded and a create a chilling effect on future participants that would compromise scientific research. While the EPA said the change would apply only in rule-making cases going forward, it could also be applied to existing regulations when they come up for periodic review. And the EPA administrator would have authority to grant exemptions. Those are recipes for long-term damage, especially at an agency headed by a former coal industry lobbyist.

“The proposed rule will force the EPA to make decisions based on less information, which will compromise its mission to protect human health,” Todd Sherer, CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Wednesday. “Instead of promoting transparency,” noted another panelist, Dr. Mary B. Rice, a critical care physician and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, “this rule would decrease transparency, by giving the EPA administrator unchecked authority to pick and choose which research studies will inform policies that affect the health of the U.S. population.”

The agency expects to finalize the rule in early 2020 after another public comment period. This is another gift from this administration to big polluters at the expense of Americans’ health.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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