Policy

Democrats urge career EPA scientist to resist research limits

Proposed EPA rule would prohibit rules based on science that doesn't identify research subjects

The EPA has proposed limits on the kinds of science that can be used to make environmental rules.  l(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The long-serving EPA scientist came to a House committee to defend a Trump administration proposal to limit the kind of science used in environmental rulemaking, but Democrats on the panel urged her to resist the change. 

Testifying before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Wednesday, Jennifer to stand up against the agency’s political leadership as she defended a Trump , EPA’s science adviser and principal deputy assistant administrator for science at the agency’s Office of Research and Development, defended the agency’s “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule as necessary for making sound decisions.

“We’re all about protecting public health and the environment and we want to make sure that our data is sound,” Orme-Zavaleta said. 

[EPA’s use of science to come under committee’s microscope]

But some Democrats on the panel questioned her sincerity in doing so as a scientist. Critics in the scientific community and in Congress warn the rule proposed last year would undermine the agency's ability to carry out its mission and give industry undue influence over environmental policy. 

“You cannot be happy that you’re here,” Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., told Orme-Zavaleta at the hearing. “You cannot be happy that your leadership has put you in the position to defend an antiscientific (policy).”

Outdated version

The hearing examining the rule came a day after news reports that the EPA was planning a more expansive version than previously proposed.

Orme-Zavaleta told lawmakers that those news reports were based on an “outdated version” different from what was sent to the Office of Management and Budget for review, but declined to specify the details of the supplemental rule.

She did not respond to lawmakers urging her to oppose the rule.

Orme-Zavaleta has worked at the EPA since 1981 and has a bachelor’s degree in zoology, a master of science in zoology and toxicology and a Ph.D. in wildlife science and public health.

Democrats on the panel pointed to her long career as a scientist to question whether she was indeed comfortable defending a rule that has been criticized as an attack on science by public health professionals and the broader scientific community.

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., said that some science isn’t or shouldn't be reproducible such as data based on natural or man-made disasters like the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

“To the extent that you’re even involved in the final decisions over this, I ask you to stick up to retaining science, the best available science,” Foster said.

New York Democrat Rep. Paul Tonko, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s Environment Subcommittee, said the rule was deceptively named and paid “lip service” to the goals of transparency.

“Any form of this rule — any form — effectively guarantees that political agendas drive rulemaking at the EPA,” Tonko said.

Asked by Tonko who would be held accountable “if Americans are sickened as a result of this rule,” Orme-Zavaleta said she doesn’t know what the final rule will look like.

Transparency

For many questions, Orme-Zavaleta said the agency was still reviewing the public comments, the supplemental rule would provide some clarifications or that she would get back to the panel later. She said she was not involved in drafting the proposed rule.

“No one in this room is against the principle of transparency in science or in our government,” Science Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said. “The requirement for data to be publicly available is nothing more than an attempt to undercut EPA’s mandate to use the best available science.”

Republicans on the panel accused Democrats of using the hearing to target the Trump administration. Republicans and conservative groups argue the rule is necessary because, they claimed, the Obama administration used bogus science to write aggressive rules that hurt industry.

 “This is about attacking the EPA under the current administration, not improving transparency and scientific integrity,” the committee’s ranking member Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., said. “I believe the EPA’s proposed rule is well-intended."

Democrats told Orme-Zavaleta they would support her if she withdrew her support for the rule.

“We’re sitting at a moment where none of this assault of science happens if people like you stand up,” Casten said. “If and when you stand up, we’ve got your back, but please stand up.”

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