Tuesday, February 06, 2007

EPA science advisers cry foul over new politicized process, while agency chief Johnson stumbles before Boxer committee

While many of us were watching this morning, EPA Administrator Steve Johnson struggled before Senator Boxer’s committee, which examined recent rollbacks at the EPA.

Johnson had some carefully scripted moments with some of the committee’s Republicans, particularly Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma, but he stumbled when he had to improvise.

In an obviously rehearsed dialogue with Inhofe, Johnson said he knew, for example, that EPA’s library contained the book Fat Chicks Rule – but Johnson didn’t appear to know that EPA had just closed a library in Maryland!

Inhofe – ever alert to provide political cover for Bush administration misdeeds -- also sprang to Johnson’s defense over industry-sought changes to EPA’s process for setting national clean air standards.

Johnson dissembled when Inhofe asked if EPA had accepted the recommendations of the American Petroleum Institute. “No,” said Johnson – though, in fact, EPA did exactly that in the most important change it made, to downgrade the role of EPA’s career experts while injecting more politics into the process for setting standards.

Interestingly, at the very same time this little drama was unfolding, EPA’s independent science advisers this morning were crying foul about those new Bush administration changes. Here are some excerpts from an excellent (and very informative) Greenwire account:

Members of U.S. EPA's science advisory panel on air pollution voiced strong concerns today about the Bush administration's recent directive to expand the power of political appointees over the panel's work.

In a meeting of the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) in Durham, N.C., panel members questioned the legality of the policy, which was announced in December by EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock.

One member suggested scientists were "handcuffing ourselves" by allowing political appointees to take a stronger role the agency's scientific reviews of six criteria air pollutants and their associated human health risks.

The new policy essentially strips the panel of its fundamental advisory role with EPA staff scientists as they compile and disseminate the latest findings on pollutants -- like ozone, particulate matter or lead -- and human health. The Clean Air Act requires such reviews twice per decade as part of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program.

Under the new policy, EPA science staff will no longer draft policy recommendations alone but will share that responsibility with a political appointee in the agency. The outcome will be a synopsis of "policy-relevant science," as opposed to a comprehensive review of past and present knowledge on the health effects of criteria air pollutants.

Also under the policy, the committee will no longer review staff science prior to its release but will comment on proposed changes after the public has been notified but before a final decision is made by the EPA administrator. Some have said the move relegates CASAC to the same status as lobbying groups, greatly eroding both its purpose and its prestige.

You’ve got to feel sorry for the EPA people who tried to defend this indefensible change. One of them, according to Greenwire, urged the independent science advisers to bring their concerns to Johnson. Actually, they’d be much better off bringing them to Boxer.

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