By: Andrew Kragie
Five former senior U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have backed a First Circuit appeal by scientists aiming to revive litigation against the EPA over what they call its 2017 “purge” of current EPA grant recipients from the agency’s advisory committees.
The former officials, who include an Obama-era acting administrator and a Reagan-era assistant administrator, argued in an amicus brief filed Thursday that the ban is preventing the agency from making decisions based on the best science available, as required by law.
The EPA under the Trump administration said when it announced the policy that it was needed to prevent conflicts of interest and ensure independence. But the agency veterans said in their brief that the true effect is to undermine a carefully calibrated diversity of viewpoints and give unrestrained influence to industry.
The order “tries to solve a problem that does not exist,” the former officials said, and “prevents some of the most qualified scientists from serving on EPA science advisory committees.” These boards do not award or control the grants, and their members are not compensated beyond travel expenses.
The ex-policymakers, joined by a former head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, argued that researchers who receive EPA grants are not biased by the support. Rather, they said the recipients may well be the best candidates.
The agency’s highly competitive grants often go to leading researchers at the cutting edge of environmental science and its real-world applications, the former officials said. EPA-funded projects often yield publications that are cited widely in their fields, suggesting their originality and widespread impact.
The governmental veterans also asked why the agency could ban recipients of EPA grants while welcoming and promoting researchers who get their funding from industry groups, regulated companies or other sources that could theoretically pose conflicts of interest.
“The practical effect of the directive has been to make the science advisory committees less independent by increasing the representation of industry scientists,” they said in their amicus brief.
The six former officials are Bob Perciasepe, an acting administrator and deputy administrator from 2009 through 2014; Bernard Goldstein, an assistant EPA administrator under President Reagan; Lynn R. Goldman, an assistant EPA administrator from 1993 through 1998; Terry Yosie, the director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board from 1981 through 1988; and David Michaels, who led OSHA from 2009 to 2017.
They wrote to support an appeal by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Elizabeth Anne Sheppard, a University of Washington scientist who left a project partly funded by the EPA to keep her seat on the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. The plaintiffs were backed at the trial court by 10 state attorneys general.
The appeal comes after the lawsuit was dismissed in March by a Massachusetts federal judge who found that the EPA adequately explained the directive. U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV also decided that the ban was not governed by other federal regulations on conflicts of interest.
The scientists argued in their appeal earlier this month that the ban failed “the most basic requirement” of the Administrative Procedure Act and that the lower court incorrectly decided the EPA’s directive was not reviewable.
The policy was first announced on Halloween 2017 by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Pruitt resigned his post in July 2018 after a series of scandals and more than a dozen investigations into his actions. He was succeeded by his deputy, former coal-industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler.
Wheeler met with leaders of the Union for Concerned Scientists but kept Pruitt’s directive in place, according to Genna Reed, the nonprofit’s lead science and policy analyst.
Reed told Law360 that the former officials “understand both the value of the best available science (as well as how having) real, qualified experts serving on these advisory committees serves as a check and a vital accountability mechanism for our science agencies.”
The Harvard Law School attorney representing the ex-policymakers, Shaun Goho, emphasized that there’s a bipartisan outcry over science at the EPA, and across the Trump administration. Academic scientists have gotten more involved in the policy realm during the current administration, he said.
“They are speaking up for science and fact-based decision making,” Goho said. “I would hope that that is not a partisan issue.”
Counsel for the EPA declined to comment Monday.
The former officials are represented by Shaun A. Goho and Lynne I. Dzubow of Harvard Law School’s Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic.
The scientists are represented by Justin Florence, Benjamin L. Berwick and Jamila G. Benkato of The Protect Democracy Project Inc., and Lindsay C. Harrison, Samuel C. Birnbaum, Zachary C. Schauf and Julian Ginos of Jenner & Block LLP.
The EPA is represented by Jeffrey E. Sandberg of U.S. Department of Justice‘s Civil Division.
–Additional reporting by Juan Carlos Rodriguez, Craig Clough and RJ Vogt. Editing by Peter Rozovsky.
Correction: An earlier story mischaracterized a response from counsel for the former officials. The error has been corrected.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from an attorney for the former officials.