The EPA is taking unprecedented steps to oust scientists who receive its grants

Scott Pruitt is pushing out EPA’s independent science advisers and bringing in industry researchers.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new rules today that will force out science advisors who have received grants from the agency, and pave the way to replace them with researchers from industry.

By changing the makeup of EPA’s science advisory boards this way, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will also be able change how the government builds the groundwork for environmental regulations.

The Board of Scientific Counselors, for example, helps decide issues EPA investigates and provides recommendations for how to conduct robust research. This research in turn helps set benchmarks for policies like air quality standards.

“It’s the equivalent of burning books that you don’t like,” said Elena Craft, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, who was forced out of the air, climate, and energy subcommittee of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors when her term was not renewed in August. “I think everyone in the country should be critically concerned about these steps.”

Pruitt hinted at the change earlier this month at a Heritage Foundation meeting, citing concerns about “the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way,” from the advisory boards.

It appears to be yet another step in the Trump Administration’s efforts to drastically whittle down EPA’s work as an environmental regulator, as Vox’s David Roberts outlined this summer.

In addition to revamping the scientific advisory boards, Pruitt has met almost exclusively with fossil fuel interests while freezing out his agency’s own scientists from reviewing regulatory rollbacks. He’s also started laying the groundwork to challenge EPA’s own legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Pruitt has described this as a “Back-to-Basics Agenda,” but environmental advocates read it as a process to undermine basic air and water protections for the benefit of industry.

And EPA is doing most of this in secret, with Pruitt going as far as to build a $25,000 secret phone booth at the agency’s headquarters (a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, in government-speak).

Now Pruitt is fishing for pretenses to push out scientists that review the EPA’s work, as today’s announcement will detail.

Independent science advisers are already being forced out

EPA maintains a stable of outside scientific advisers across several boards and subcommittees, including those that advise the administrator and others that review the integrity of the agency’s research programs, drawing from academic institutions, nonprofits, industry, and government.

The dismantling of the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors began in May with the dismissal of 12 of its experts who came from various fields of environmental science and policy. The move caught them offguard, especially after some received assurances that their positions would continue.

“After the election, before the inauguration, our relationships didn’t change… At the time in January, things seemed just fine,” said then-board member Robert Richardson, an environmental economist at Michigan State University. “That’s what made it very surprising to receive that email in May.”

“It effectively wipes out the BOSC and leaves it free for a complete reappointment,” Deborah Swackhamer, the current chair of the board’s executive committee and an emeritus professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota, also told the Washington Post.

Even current members of the BOSC are in the dark. “I’ve been told nothing,” said Joseph Rodricks, a consulting scientist with the Ramboll Group who is still named as a member of the BOSC executive committee. “I guess I’m still on the board. I’m still listed there.”

He noted that he chairs the water subcommittee, which was scheduled to have two meetings this year, but both were cancelled without explanation. He was also asked to reapply for his position, which he did, even though his term isn’t set to expire until 2020.

“It’s been a little fuzzy, shall we say,” he said.

In June, the EPA declined to renew dozens of other science advisers whose terms expire in August. The EPA acknowledged but did not respond to requests for comment.

The agency’s science advisers ensure the credibility of the information the EPA uses to build its regulations, ranging from the risks of infection to cost-benefit analyses of regulations.

An EPA official who asked not to be named explained that the agency brings scientists on board from industry and academia to harness their individual scientific judgements, not as representatives of their institutions. Researchers are appointed to a three-year term, with one chance to renew, though the majority serve close to six years, according to the official.

“The Science Advisory Board conducts independent reviews of just about anything of consequence that has a scientific underpinning,” the official said.

This appointment cycle is staggered so that the EPA’s scientific advisory board has a 20 percent turnover rate each year, and the hiring of scientists to conduct reviews is usually apolitical.

“Typically, up till now, it’s always been independent of administrations,” the official said, adding that letting scientists go en masse is highly unusual. “As far as I can tell, this is the first time this has happened.”

Rodricks said that the idea of blocking scientists who have received grants from EPA undermines the integrity of the agency’s science. “The people who are best qualified to give the agency advice are being excluded,” he said. “There are all kinds of mechanisms to avoid conflicts of interest. If that’s the tale, I think it’s a phony tale.”

Meanwhile, Pruitt is packing EPA offices with industry interests

Pruitt’s efforts to push scientists out of the EPA are being complemented by steps to bring industry interests on board, particularly in management roles.

The New York Times reported that political appointee Nancy Beck in EPA’s toxic chemicals office, formerly with a chemical industry trade group, was instrumental in writing a rule rolling back monitoring of a hazardous chemical.

Michael Dourson, who was this week confirmed by the Senate to be Beck’s boss, was already working at the EPA even before the vote went through, drawing the ire of lawmakers. His consulting company had a long list of clients in the chemicals industry.

Coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler was nominated earlier this month to be Pruitt’s second in command. Samantha Dravis, who now leads EPA’s deregulation efforts, was a former official at the Republican Attorneys General Association, which filed lawsuits against the EPA. A former top lawyer at the American Petroleum Institute, Erik Baptist, is now the EPA’s senior deputy general counsel.

Though the White House’s proposal to gut EPA’s budget by one-third is unlikely to make it through Congress, these personnel changes portend a drastic reshaping of EPA’s work in protecting the environment.

Some of the scientists who remain are being told to keep quiet about climate change

Last week, the EPA abruptly canceled presentations from some of its scientists at an event on climate change without explanation.

“It’s definitely a blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA,” John King, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told the New York Times.

The event would have been inconvenient for Pruitt’s efforts to discredit climate change science and to dismantle regulations that stem from it.

Michael Cox, a former EPA climate adviser, told Huffington Post’s Highline that these developments are all a continuation of the long-running antagonism Pruitt has had for his agency.

“I’ve worked with six administrations—from Reagan’s until this one—and we’ve had differences in opinion, but there was never the feeling anyone was coming in to dismantle the organization and really do damage to it. But we felt like that from the very first time Scott Pruitt had an all-staff meeting,” Cox said. “It was very clear that he was talking down to us. We were the EPA. We were the bad guys. We were the problem.”