Two environmental groups are suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its new policy of not allowing scientists benefiting from agency funding to also serve on advisory boards.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the new policy in October to “ensure independence” and “geographical representation” on scientific advisory boards.
“Whatever science comes out of EPA, shouldn’t be political science,” Pruitt said in October. “From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the agency.”
The idea is to keep EPA science boards free of potential conflicts of interest by excluding researchers getting taxpayer funding. EPA has 22 scientific boards, but the order currently only applies to three of them.
Environmentalists and some scientists were livid. Now, Columbia University’s Environmental Law Clinic and Earthjustice are suing the EPA on behalf current and former advisory board researchers, according to The Washington Post on Thursday.
The lawsuit argues Pruitt lacked the authority to change EPA’s science advisory board policies. Activists also allege Pruitt’s order violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act that allows federal grant recipients to serve on advisory boards, but only if those boards are not closely related to their funding.
But there’s the rub. EPA said members of three boards the order applies to have gotten $77 million in EPA grants in the last three years while they weighed in on agency regulations.
The Energy & Environment Legal Institute sued EPA in 2016 to prevent its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) from meeting after finding that 24 of its 26 members had received more than $190 million from EPA.
Seventeen of the 20 scientific advisers sitting on EPA’s ozone panel also benefited from $192 million in EPA grants, according to E&E Legal.
Despite this, one board member caught up in the policy refused to step down. She’s joined the lawsuit against EPA, calling Pruitt’s order “morally reprehensible.”
“It all sounds very well intentioned, wanting more diversity on the boards, wanting more voices to be heard. Who is going to disagree with that?” Robyn Wilson of Ohio State University told WaPo.
“I think it is an attempt to get rid of people who they assume are not on board with the current administration’s goals, which are deregulatory,” she said.
Environmentalists charge Pruitt used the order to fill EPA committees with voices friendly to industry and state interests. Pruitt named 66 experts to sit on three committees, but all of these appointees — no matter their ties — are experts in their fields.
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