Scientists: EPA ‘Under Siege’ « The Washington Independent
Environmental activists have been sharply critical of President George W. Bush’s record on the environment. Unions, advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers have expressed strong concerns about the White House obstructing science at the Environmental Protection Agency in order to promote industrial interests. They point to several cases in which influence from industry lobbyists, political appointees or the White House created weaker regulations.
According to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists, environmental activists aren’t the only ones frustrated with this. In fact, the group’s survey of more than 1,500 EPA scientists reveals a consensus that political interference in agency science has increased under the Bush administration.
The report describes the EPA as "an agency under siege from political pressures." Many of the 1,586 EPA scientists surveyed expressed concerns that political appointees, senior EPA officials and other federal agencies inappropriately influence scientific work. Many also expressed frustration about not being able to freely discuss scientific findings — either within the agency, outside of the agency or with the news media. The EPA says that political interference has not increased under the Bush administration. But research and advocacy groups say their findings support those of the UCS, and warn that interference could mean long-term harm for the environment and public health.
More than half of those scientists surveyed — 889 — said they had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference in the last five years. Among scientists who have more more than 10 years experience at EPA, 43 percent, or 409 respondents, said interference has increased over the last five years, as compared with the previous five years.
The highest number of scientists who reporting interference worked in program offices with regulatory duties and at EPA headquarters. In the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, responses varied widely. For example, scientists at the ORD’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, which regulates air pollution from motor vehicles, reported more interference than respondents from any other division at the agency. Scientists from the ORD’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, which evaluates the risk of pollutants to humans and ecosystems, reported the least amount of interference.
EPA press secretary Jonathan Shradar said in an interview today that results from the UCS’s survey are not indicative of an increase in political influence over science under the Bush administration. "The issues that we deal with are issues that we’re all very passionate about," Shradar said. "Sometimes there can be disagreement when difficult decisions are made. Any decision that comes out of the EPA has wide…opposition on both sides of an issue — whether [scientists call for] stronger standards or weaker standards."
More than half of those scientists surveyed — 889 — said they had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference in the last five years. Shradar said that "passion" can sometimes affect employee perceptions, referring to many of the scientists who responded to the UCS survey. "Given the characteristic of decisions made at this agency, I think it would be difficult to find a group of folks that would all agree at the same time, just because we’re all so passionate," he said. "Sometimes that passion can cloud how we feel we’re being treated."
When it comes to external interference, EPA scientists said in written essays, inappropriate influence was coming from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and political appointees of other federal agencies. They also cited that the Office of Management and Budget has wielding inappropriate influence.
One of the OMB’s responsibilities is to review EPA policies. But the Union of Concerned Scientists says that under the Bush administration, for the first time, the office began reviewing and criticizing the science that informs those policies.
"The role of OMB in terms of policy review and coordination is a problem," one EPA scientist wrote in response to a survey question asking how the integrity of scientific work could be improved. "Economists, or whatever they are, ‘playing’ scientist and/or engineer is troublesome and a real annoyance. They lack the basic credentials to make scientific or engineering judgments."
Another respondent, an agency veteran since 1988, wrote, "OMB, with John Graham at the helm, seemed intent on rendering EPA and every other regulatory agency (Food and Drug Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mine Safety, Consumer Product Safety Commission…) utterly powerless with its ‘information quality guidelines.’"
Eric Schaeffer, the former head of EPA’s office of regulatory enforcement, who is now director of the Environmental Integrity Project watchdog group, said in an interview this week that Graham’s agenda could be threatening health standards set by the EPA. He cited cancer risk assessment as one such area. "John Graham has an axe to grind on cancer risk assessment," Schaeffer said. "By his academic training and ideology, he thinks environmental cancer risks are really exaggerated. An opportunity came along to create an exemption to say the cancer risk a lot lower. It was very exciting for OMB folks."
The new UCS report cited other cases of OMB interference in EPA science that may have weakened health standards. Those included a 2004 rule regulating pollution from plywood plants, a 2006 decision on air quality standards for fine particulate matter and a 2007 scientific finding about ground-level ozone exposure affecting mortality rates.
But the EPA press secretary, Jonathan Shradar, said in an interview today that the OMB does not influence EPA science. "Typically OMB’s role is one of policy," Shradar said.
However, the Environmental Working Group, a research group, says that the OMB’s influence over science is increasing, raising concerns for the risk assessment of toxic substances. This is because the EPA has recently announced changes that allow the OMB more influence over the process of setting risk values for toxic chemicals. "Advocacy groups and scientists within EPA," said Sonya Lunder of the Environmental Working Group, "have significant concerns about this new policy undercutting the process by which EPA sets risk-based standards for harmful chemicals."
The UCS report also found that influence from political appointees at the OMB and the Council on Environmental Quality affected global warming science coming out of the EPA. The report cited cases of those agencies "tampering" with EPA’s scientific documents on climate change.
Shradar, the EPA press secretary, said that the Bush administration has had no political influence over climate science that comes out of the agency. "Science is science," he said. "Science is done, researched, analyzed and then it is up to policymakers to weigh that science and determine policy…Science plays an important role in all of the decisions that come out of this agency, and this administration, and will continue to do so."
Schaeffer, who says he left the EPA in part because of White House interference with enforcement of the Clean Air Act, says that agency science on global warming and air pollution has been carefully screened under the Bush administration. "Most dramatic is the change in ozone standards in a White House direction, which I don’t think we would have seen before," he said. Instead, Schaeffer said, we would have seen the EPA administrator moving to strengthen air quality standards, which have implications for public health.
Many EPA scientists also reported agency restrictions on free communication of scientific results. The UCS concluded that this further obstructs EPA science. Fifty-one percent of scientists surveyed, or 783 scientists, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that agency policies allow scientists to "speak freely to the news media about their findings." Only 13 percent of those surveyed agreed with that statement.
One former EPA scientist told the UCS, "I was never told not to speak to the press, but conventional understanding in the agency was that it is not a good idea to do so, and that it could harm your career if you did.” This scientist also said that agency employees are "typically required to route media requests through the press office."
EPA press secretary Shradar said that the agency has an unwritten policy that scientists are free to talk to the media about their work as long as they make the press office aware of such communication. "Anyone can talk to the media, that is fine," he said, "We just prefer that they coordinate with my office so we know that it’s happening."
Some EPA scientists surveyed reported feeling unable to openly express concerns about the EPA’s work either inside or outside of the agency. Thirty-one percent, or 492 scientists, disagreed or strongly disagreed that they could openly express such concerns inside the agency without fear of retaliation. Twenty-four percent, or 382 scientists, disagreed or strongly disagreed that they could openly express such concerns outside the agency without fear of retaliation.
The report discussed scientists who experienced obstacles to free communication regarding climate science at the EPA. The UCS also discussed cases in which EPA scientists had problems getting clearance from the agency to publish articles in scientific journals. The UCS concluded that this demonstrates political interference in the free exchange of scientific ideas.
Interference from the White House through political appointees, senior EPA officials and other federal agencies could result in long-term damage for the environment and public health, the UCS report concludes. Many EPA scientists surveyed said that an increase in political influence over the last five years has made it difficult for government scientists to do their jobs.
The UCS’s scientific integrity program said today that the EPA is in a state of "crisis."
"Our investigation found an agency in crisis," said the director of that program, Francesca Grifo, in a UCS press release. "Nearly 900 EPA scientists reported political interference in their scientific work. That’s 900 too many. Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health and our democracy itself."
Judging from his experience working at the EPA, Schaeffer and his group, the Environmental Integrity Project, point to a noticeable increase in political interference in agency science under the Bush administration. "There’s always politics in every government agency decision no matter who’s in power, and that’s in part because governments have to balance resources, economic impacts and doability," said Schaeffer, "But EPA has gone way off on the other side, away from the science and toward worrying about politics and what the industry wants."