EPA Plans to Listen to Scientists Again

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced it will increase the influence of scientists and the level of transparency in setting standards for common air pollutants, a reversal of a Bush administration policy that politicized scientific analyses. Clean air advocates are welcoming the policy reversal as a restoration of the role of science in crafting policies that impact environmental and public health.

In a letter to an independent science advisory group, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson described the new process for reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and stated her belief that the process "will ensure the timeliness, scientific integrity, and transparency of the NAAQS review process." The new process restores the use of a key document that assessed the scientific foundation for air quality policy options.

Every five years, the EPA is required to review the standards for emissions of six common pollutants, including those that contribute to acid precipitation and smog, as well as the science undergirding the standards. The agency most often fails to meet this deadline. Advising the EPA is a panel of non-EPA scientists know as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).

In prior years, EPA scientists produced a "staff paper" during the NAAQS reviews that analyzed the scientific basis for policy options that considered whether to raise or lower a standard or leave it unchanged. In a purported effort to streamline the review process, in 2006, the Bush EPA made several changes, including replacing the staff paper with a policy assessment that reflected the views of EPA senior management and was published as an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR). An ANPR usually announces the beginning of a rulemaking process. However, the 2006 change placed it at the end of a comprehensive public review process, creating more delay and possibly undermining the work of the scientists.

Many clean air advocates criticized the change and sought to restore the influence of staff scientists and undo the added bureaucracy of the ANPR. Significantly, the CASAC strongly objected to the change, decrying the marginalization of scientists in the review process and the increased influence of political appointees. The CASAC claimed that in practice, the document that replaced the staff paper was "both unsuitable and inadequate as a basis for rulemaking" and served to "undermine the scientific foundation of the NAAQS reviews" (emphasis in the original).

The newly announced review process for air quality standards will once again include the staff paper. The use of the ANPR policy assessment will cease. The staff paper (also referred to as the "policy assessment") will serve to "bridge the gap" between the science and the policy options available to the administrator. The draft document will be available for public comment.

The EPA administrator will not jettison all of the Bush-era changes to the NAAQS review process. The process as described by Jackson will retain parts of the prior administration's changes and will add new features. Every phase of the review process prior to the interagency review will include public comment and participation by the CASAC.

The NAAQS review process for each pollutant will kick off with a public workshop to create a strategic plan for the review that will identify the purpose and approach the agency will use. The draft review plan will be open for public comment.

When creating an assessment of the relevant science, and during the assessment of human health risks, Jackson has instructed EPA scientists to reach out to other federal scientists, such as at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for their input. It is not clear whether comments from federal scientists will be disclosed to the public during the review process. Allowing the public to evaluate disagreements and discussions among federal scientists is a crucial aspect of government transparency.

Concerns also remain over the role of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during the interagency review process. OMB has previously been criticized for interfering with science-based policy decisions, including during the review of standards for ozone.

Additionally, Jackson will continue to pursue the development of an electronic database to identify and prioritize scientific studies, known as Health and Environmental Research Online (HERO). It is not clear to what degree such a database would be accessible to the public.

Overall, Jackson's air quality review process provides a respectable level of public participation and transparency at important stages of the process – that is, before policy decisions have already been made. If the review process is implemented in accordance with the Obama administration's recent rhetoric upholding the value of scientific integrity, then the EPA will once again be assessing the best available science in a transparent manner when setting standards for air quality.

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