Under yet another pretense of “transparency,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its intent to stop making decisions using “secret science,” or data the public doesn’t know about.
Transparency is great, sure. And since amending the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), transparency is something the EPA has repeatedly promised. But if this move left you wondering, “Couldn’t confidential data be just as important to chemical review as public data?” you wouldn’t be alone.
The TSCA contains a great deal of information that cannot be made public for obvious reasons. The information might be subject to legal restrictions. It might be proprietary. Some contains sensitive data that relies on access to confidential medical records.
Yet a lot of these data could drive critical decisions for public health. By suppressing them, NGOs say, the EPA would delay or ignore action needed to suppress dangerous chemicals, including the deadly carcinogen asbestos. The Union of Concerned Scientists said the approach could “radically limit the types of science that the EPA can use in developing public health and environmental protections.”
Transparency? Or an Extension of the HONEST Act?
The EPA announced their secret science policy by press release and interview with conservative publication The Daily Caller and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, but did not respond to requests for more details. However, experts align the approach with the HONEST Act, a misleading bill introduced last year that couldn’t be less honest if it tried.
The bill aims to stop the EPA from taking regulatory action based on science that’s “not transparent and reproducible.” Instead, it insists, science on which the agency relies to make decisions should be the “best available,” specifically identified, and publicly available in a way that supports independent analysis.
Introduced to Congress several times, the measure has repeatedly failed to secure passage. But it’s pretty popular among chemical companies.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a major chemical lobbyist and proponent of the Act, told Chemical Watch it looks forward to reviewing the EPA’s forthcoming policy – and particularly to “understanding how the agency will properly protect confidential business information, proprietary interests, and competitive intelligence.”
Pruitt, Friends, and a Laundry List of Ways to Fudge the TSCA
Supporters of increased TSCA and asbestos regulation have had a hard time of it since the EPA introduced its final framework last summer. Public advocacy groups since sued the EPA for diluting TSCA rules (last week consolidating their complaints into one case) and have tried requesting information on TSCA developments through the Freedom of Information Act. Yet the setbacks, whether from corrupt EPA leaders or their partners, and always disguised as having the public’s best interests at heart, just keep on coming.
Previous ploys chemical companies have made to increase so-called transparency include the FACT Act, the FAIR Act, and the newer “PROTECT Asbestos Victims Act.” All different “pro-public” angles to the same story: protecting the industry from regulatory scrutiny.
NGOs believe the same is happening here. They complain that Pruitt, whom we know isn’t the biggest fan of scientific evidence, is taking the failed HONEST Act into his own hands – hell-bent on passing some version that supports industry goals.
Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted “massive gaps and inconsistencies in the information EPA does provide to the public.” With its newest transparency measure, “There’s an issue that even if EPA had infinite resources and infinite time, it might not be able to make all information underlying a study public,” he said. In which case, “it would simply have to pretend that study didn’t exist.”
Subtle changes to legislation, always more industry-friendly than the next, certainly aren’t making the TSCA any clearer – or safer – to the public.
The secret science policy will only “engender huge arguments and fights over every piece of information that the agency seeks to use,” Denison said. “That does not bode well for efficient and effective implementation of the [TSCA] law.”