The EPA is eliminating a key science office

With the human drama unfolding at this week’s astonishing Senate Judiciary hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, it’s easy to lose sight of the latest changes at the Environmental Protection Agency. But what’s been going at EPA could also affect the lives of millions of Americans for years to come.

The EPA’s scandal-plagued former Administrator Scott Pruitt may be gone, but his agenda of undoing environmental regulations and restricting the role of science is humming along under acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, according to the New York Times.

  • On Thursday, we learned that the EPA is planning to eliminate the science adviser’s office under its Office of Research and Development. It’s a role meant to advise the administrator and to ensure the best science is used to inform environmental policies.
  • Earlier in the week, we found out that the EPA placed the head of its Office of Children’s Health Protection, Ruth Etzel, on leave. It was a move she interpreted as a step to “disappear” her office, according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed.

These moves are part of a bigger, ongoing reshuffle within the EPA, which agency officials say is meant to “reduce redundancies.” But environmental advocates see an ominous trend.

“There’s a disturbing pattern in the Trump administration of ignoring science, boxing out the expertise of career staff, and undermining the mission of agencies that are supposed to protect us,” Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a press release this week in response to Etzel’s removal.

Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, a career employee who is serving as the acting science adviser, said in a statement that the adviser’s office is being dissolved as part of a merger of two similar divisions. She added that the head of R&D at the EPA will continue to serve as the EPA’s science adviser.

While this may merely look like redrawing lines on an organization chart, employees are worried there’s a political agenda lurking beneath. The proposal for the science adviser’s office would effectively demote the adviser. Rather than reporting directly to the administrator, he or she would report to someone at least two management levels below.

“Clearly, this is an attempt to silence voices whether it’s in the agency’s Office of Children’s Health or the Office of the Science Advisor to kill career civil servants’ input and scientific perspectives on rule-making,” Michael Mikulka, who leads a union representing EPA employees, told the New York Times.

The foundations of environmental policy are being eroded at the EPA

Science is critical to just about every policy at the EPA, from determining how much lead is safe in drinking water to figuring out how much climate change costs the economy. And limiting how the agency uses the science that informs its policies, whether it’s by ousting experts or by restricting information, is an important step in rolling back environmental regulations.

Long before this week, the EPA has been taking steps to force academic scientists from its advisory boards. Agency officials have argued that advisers who have received grants from the EPA for research have a conflict of interest. But many of their replacements on advisory boards have come from state agencies that have sued the EPA or from companies regulated by the agency.

Scientific research itself is also facing increased restrictions. The EPA wants to limit the kinds of studies used to inform policies to those that are reproducible and those that make their data public. Health advocates have argued that this would eliminate key research on one-off events like oil spills and ban studies that involve confidential patient information.

Loosening environmental rules that keep toxics out of the air, water, and soil stand to have devastating consequences for millions of Americans, particularly for children’s health. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an associate professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University, described this week’s news at the EPA as “a threat to today’s children and generations of children who will bear the brunt of this anti-science and shortsighted disinvestment.”

Though some of the EPA’s rollbacks have been thwarted by courts, the Trump administration has shown no sign of letting up, even as investigations and political wrangling roil the government.

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