We’re Suing to Stop a New Kind of Pollution: ‘Alternative Facts’

Earthjustice filed suit today to stop EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt from replacing science advisers with industry shills.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has barred scientists who receive EPA funding for their research from sitting on key scientific advisory boards.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. (GAGE SKIDMORE / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Ana Nobis’ parents raised her to believe the U.S. government had its citizens’ best interests at heart. The Chicago doctor’s mother and father, emigrants from Costa Rica and Peru, idealized the United States and the new life the country offered them.

But Nobis’ faith in American leaders has been shaken by the Trump administration’s attacks on science and public health.

A pivotal moment came in October when EPA chief Scott Pruitt banned many publicly funded scientists from serving on the committees that ensure the agency’s scientific integrity. He also removed nearly two dozen sitting advisers from the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. Almost all of the 18 replacement appointees he has announced so far draw paychecks from polluting industries, hold pro-pollution views that are outside the scientific mainstream, or both.

“What are the stages of grief?” says Nobis, a member of the public health advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Denial, anger—it was those kinds of emotions. Through my medical education, I learned that yes, you’re supposed to question and investigate and demand evidence, but I always assumed a premise of goodwill and our government wanting to take care of us.”

Earthjustice filed suit today to challenge Pruitt’s decree in court. The lawsuit, representing public health groups, medical groups, and scientists, argues that the policy illegally overrides federal ethics rules and that it is arbitrarily biased in favor of corporate interests. Pruitt-picked advisers like Robert Phalen, who once claimed that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health,” will inevitably tilt EPA decisions and programs in favor of polluters.

As the mother of a 3-year-old, and with twins on the way, Nobis has been paying close attention to how the EPA regulates lead, which can seriously affect children’s mental and physical development. The agency has been revising the rule that protects people from lead in drinking water and is expected to issue proposed guidelines in 2018. About 80 percent of the houses and small apartment buildings in Chicago receive water through lead pipes, so changes to the lead rule could impact the health of Nobis’ family.

Pruitt claims the policy change will prevent conflicts of interest. But his decree means the agency’s decision-makers won’t receive input from top scientific experts, many of whom rely on public grants to conduct independent studies. 

The input from these experts can directly impact the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. The EPA consults closely with at least one panel of independent scientists when the agency must decide issues such as what level of air pollution can be considered safe. The panel’s recommendations may prompt the agency to adopt stronger protections. Or, if the agency ignores the scientists’ input, Earthjustice and its allies can take the EPA to court to compel a fair process that addresses the scientific evidence.

The work of Deborah Cory-Slechta, a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, illustrates why without the guidance of top scientists the EPA won’t be able to develop regulations that adequately protect Americans. The developmental neurotoxicologist’s recent research focuses on how air pollution affects brain development. She points to a dozen studies linking air pollution exposure to autism and other developmental conditions as evidence that air pollution is “the new lead.”  

While scientists are realizing air pollution is more harmful than previously thought, the full extent remains unknown, she says. The Science Advisory Board needs experts who can interpret the emerging research on this subject and help the agency set regulations accordingly.

Cory-Slechta herself participates on EPA committees to advise the agency on matters of neuroscience. She considers this service an important way to give back to the public whose tax dollars have helped fund her research. But now she’ll have to choose between sharing her knowledge with the EPA and receiving grant money.

“If we can’t get this work done, we can’t protect public health,” Cory-Slechta says.

In addition to Phalen, the new adviser who thinks the air is too clean, Pruitt’s Science Advisory Board appointees include a new chair, Michael Honeycutt, who has claimed that more smog would be a “health benefit.” As the lead toxicologist on Texas’ state environmental agency, he has opposed stricter limits on mercury and arsenic releases and undermined protections for benzene, a common and powerful carcinogen.

In all, seven of Pruitt’s appointees currently receive income from polluters. Four more have done so in the past. And five others have a track record of repeating industrial talking points while rejecting mainstream science.

“It’s a transparent bid to politicize the scientific process and stack the deck for polluting industries.”

The replacement of top scientists with these industry allies is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to override scientific evidence in its decision-making. Trump has called global warming a Chinese hoax and his administration has scrubbed the phrase ‘climate change’ from government websites and the US national security strategy. Pruitt’s EPA ignored its own scientific analyses on the health impacts of the pesticide chlorpyrifos when the agency reversed moves to ban the chemical. Last month, 57 former EPA lawyers signed an open letter blasting Pruitt for offering polluters preferential treatment.

“Pruitt’s choice to replace top scientists with pro-pollution advocates shows that, contrary to EPA’s claims, this move has nothing to do with promoting scientific integrity or the independence of the committees,” says Earthjustice lawyer Neil Gormley, the lead attorney on the case. “It’s a transparent bid to politicize the scientific process and stack the deck for polluting industries.”

Earthjustice is representing Physicians for Social Responsibility, National Hispanic Medical Association, and the International Society for Children’s Health and Environment in today’s lawsuit. The complaint asks the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., to throw out Pruitt’s policy. It also asks the court to block the EPA from removing any more scientists under the policy and force the EPA to reinstate the scientists who were already removed.

Though Nobis’ trust in the U.S. government is shaken, she says, “I still have faith that it’s all going to be okay.”

“There are people fighting, and that’s what matters,” she says. “The American public and health professionals are not just going to sit back and let this happen.”

Based in Seattle, Rebecca Cohen is the managing editor at Earthjustice