EPA forced to ban pesticides based on ‘secret science’ it wants to end

By Michael Bastasch

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has fewer than 60 days to ban a commonly-used pesticide after a federal court ruled in favor of environmental activists in early August.

The Natural Resources Defense council (NRDC) celebrated the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, arguing that EPA’s decision not to ban chlorpyrifos ignored “solid science” from its “own scientists” that the pesticide “harms the developing brain” of children. The court reversed the Trump administration’s decision not to ban chlorpyrifos, a widely-used pesticide in agriculture.

However, EPA’s “own scientists” did not rely on their own research, but instead relied on research done outside the agency to propose banning chlorpyrifos late in the Obama administration. NRDC and other activist groups petitioned EPA to ban chlorpyrifos in 2007.

In fact, EPA relied on a single study by the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University that examined chlorpyrifos levels in umbilical cords. The study’s underlying data is not publicly available, reigniting the debate over EPA’s use of “secret science” in regulations.

“Yet this proposed ban was not based on actual EPA research; it was based on a single, privately-produced study for which data remains unavailable to the public — even the EPA staff have never been able access to the underlying data,” wrote Angela Logomasini, a senior fellow at the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute.

EPA proposed a rule in April requiring federal officials to make public underlying data of studies used to justify costly regulations. Republicans have been pushing for science transparency rules for years, citing the agency’s attempt to ban chlorpyrifos as a reason why.

“If anything, this situation underscores the need for greater transparency of regulatory science rather than the need for EPA to blindly regulate away useful products,” Logomasini wrote in a blog post on the court’s decision.

Democrats and environmentalists oppose transparency in EPA science, arguing it could expose personal health information that’s protected by law and would be used to undercut regulations.

Thursday was the last day for outside parties to submit comments to EPA about its transparency plan. So far, EPA received more than 246,000 comments regarding the rule, according to Regulations.gov.

As it stands, EPA’s transparency rule does make exceptions for personal information, and it’s still unclear how exactly the agency plans on disseminating data. Still, environmentalists oppose requiring data used to craft regulations be made available to the public.

News outlets, like The New York Times, former EPA officials, many public health experts and science organizations also opposed the transparency rule.

“Over the years, such studies have been crucial to establishing links between mortality and pollution, led to regulations and saved many lives,” The New York Times editorial board wrote in April. “Limiting policymakers to only those studies with publicly available health data greatly narrows the field of research.”

However, EPA’s using of a single study with non-public data illustrates the problems of rulemaking with so-called “secret science.” Even EPA’s Science Advisory Panel was critical of the use of a single study to ban a class of pesticides.

“The majority of the Panel did not agree with the Agency’s use of the results from a single longitudinal study to make a decision based on the use of cord blood measures of chlorpyrifos as a PoD for risk assessment,” according to proceedings of a March 2016 SAP meeting.

“The majority of the Panel stated that using cord blood chlorpyrifos concentrations for derivation of the PoD could not be justified by any sound scientific evaluation,” reads the meeting document.

The SAP also said a major source of concern “was the lack of verification and replication of the analytical chemistry results that reported very low levels of chlorpyrifos.” Logomasini put it more simpler terms.

“That is, EPA staff basically made data up to fit the predetermined conclusions of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health study,” she wrote. “That’s pretty outrageous and certainly not how scientific research should be performed. In fact, this approach fits the definition of junk science.”

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