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Gina McCarthy testifies before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on her nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on Capitol Hill in Washington April 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts) Gina McCarthy testifies before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on her nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on Capitol Hill in Washington April 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)  

EPA’s ‘independent’ science advisers get government grants, ‘peer review’ own work

Environmental Protection Agency science advisers may not be so impartial, according to congressional investigators. Scientists tasked with reviewing one of the EPA’s costliest regulations to date have received government grants and often peer review their own research.

Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith wrote to the EPA last week detailing his concerns that the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) Ozone Review Panel suffers from conflicts of interest and lacks impartiality.

The ozone panel is tasked with reviewing EPA documents related to clean air regulations and is intended “to have complete independence” from the agency, according to Smith — who chairs the House Science Committee. Smith wrote that the panel suffers from “panelists reviewing their own work; a lack of turnover among CASAC Ozone Review Panel members; and, existing financial relationships between Panelists and the Agency.”

According to Smith, 16 of the 20 members on the current Ozone Review Panel are cited by the EPA in key regulatory science documents the panel is tasked with peer reviewing. The work of panel members is cited more than 700 times in these documents which panelists are asked to critically assess.

Smith notes that this runs afoul of the EPA’s own rules for peer reviewing its science, citing an agency handbook saying an “independent peer reviewer is an expert who was not associated with the generation of the specific work product either directly… or indirectly…”

“The CASAC Ozone Review Panel appears to violate agency policies designed to ensure balance, independence and impartiality,” Smith wrote. “Due to the substantial economic cost associated with finalizing a more stringent ozone standard, EPA should make every effort to ensure the transparency of the regulatory process.”

Furthermore, 15 of the 20 panelists are on the EPA’s payroll. The Washington Examiner reports that 15 of the 20 “CASAC ozone review panelists received $180.8 million in EPA grants.” The largest dollar amount of these grants went to panelist Ed Avol of the University of Southern California who got $51.7 million. The seven members of the ozone panel’s executive committee got $80.2 million of the total from the EPA.

“Any claim that the 15 grant recipients on this panel have ‘complete independence’ from the EPA — as federal law requires — when their careers have depended on EPA grants of such magnitude is a disgusting farce,” writes Ron Arnold, the executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

CASAC’s ozone panel is currently in the process of reviewing the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The EPA wants to lower NAAQS in order to set more stringent air quality standards, but the rule is projected to cost $100 billion annually — making it one of the costliest in EPA history.

Setting NAAQS below natural air quality levels could put huge swaths of the U.S. out of compliance with the law, meaning that severe penalties could be levied on communities around the country, Smith writes.

But it’s unclear if the science advisory panel knows whether or not it’s supposed to advise the EPA on the socioeconomic factors of its rulemaking.

Dr. Roger McClellan, the former chairman of the clean air panel, told Congress in 2011, “I am not aware that CASAC has ever advised EPA to take account of the role of socioeconomic factors, unemployment or other risk factors influencing the health endpoints under consideration.”

McClellan’s testimony was bolstered by remarks from former EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Jeff Holmstead who said that it “appears that, until recently, most CASAC members were not aware that they have a statutory obligation to advise the head of EPA on certain issues [bad effects of regulation].

“As far as I know, CASAC had never fulfilled this requirement as it relates to the ozone standard or any other,” Holmstead added.

It’s not only that the panel is unclear on what it’s supposed to advise the EPA on, but testimony from former CASAC members reveals the agency’s efforts to keep them silent. Dr. Robert Phalen, a former member of the CASAC panel on fine particulate matter, told Congress that the current CASAC process “is seriously flawed, it is narrowly focused, and it is even ethically questionable.”

Phalen added that, “CASAC was not allowed to discuss any of the adverse consequences associated with setting new standards… [T]he subcommittee that I was on did not adequately inform the Administrator on the pitfalls, the scientific limitations, and even the adverse health consequences that would flow from a more stringent regulation.”

Smith has asked the GAO to look into if EPA science advisers are carrying out their statutory duties.

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