WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has removed six university researchers — whose expertise ranges from economics to environmental health — from the agency's Science Advisory Board, replacing them with advisers with more industry-friendly views.
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced the new appointments on Friday in the wake of new guidelines that prohibit scientists who receive EPA grants from serving on advisory panels that provide critical expertise and oversight for federal policymaking.
"To ensure that EPA is receiving the best independent scientific advice, I am appointing highly-qualified experts and scientists to these important committees," Pruitt said in a statement. The agency noted that all board members have "committed to remaining financially independent from EPA grants during their tenures."
The list of new appointees to the Science Advisory Board includes industry representatives, red-state officials, and independent scientists who share EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's critical views of major federal environmental regulations, according to a review by NBC News.
Those members include Larry Monroe, a former executive at Southern Company, an Alabama gas and electric firm; Merlin Lindstrom of Phillips 66, a Texas fuel company; Robert Merritt, a retired executive from petrochemical firm Total; and Kimberly White of the American Chemistry Council, the most prominent trade association for chemical manufacturers.
Pruitt has also selected red-state regulators who have contested major EPA policies to serve on the board. As North Carolina's head of environmental quality, Donald van der Vaart led his state to sue the federal government over the Clean Power Plan, which Pruitt has moved to withdraw. The Science Advisory Board's new chair is Michael Honeycutt, a toxicologist at the Texas Board of Environmental Quality has fought against stricter ozone standards and helped relax chemical regulations in Texas.
In addition, the EPA announced new members of the agency's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and Board of Scientific Counselors — two other independent advisory panels.
Pruitt said that the new guidelines are necessary to avoid conflicts of interest between board members who are receiving grants from the agency they're advising, and will help promote greater geographic diversity on the advisory boards.
But opponents of the move fear that the Pruitt's new guidelines — which appears to be a first for the agency — will make the board less independent and undermine policymaking based on evidence-based science, as EPA grants are a major source of funding for independent academic researchers.
"The move to remove scientists with EPA funding is, simply put, scientific censorship," says University of Minnesota professor Deborah Swackhamer, a former chair of the Science Advisory Board and a current member of the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors.
Congress originally established EPA's Science Advisory Board to provide expert advice and oversight of the agency. Last year, the panel issued a report criticizing EPA's conclusion that hydraulic fracturing had no "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources," saying the agency had failed to provide enough evidence to support such findings.
"EPA uses all sorts of science to support its activities — [The board] was in effect the last stop," says Robert Johnstone, an environmental economist at Clark University who was removed from the board after he refused to give up his EPA-funded research on water quality. "Without an unbiased, unvarnished Scientific Advisory Board, there's nothing to stop the agency from using science that isn't appropriate."
Critics of Pruitt's directive said they believe the EPA already has a robust policy requiring its independent advisers to recuse themselves on issues that might pose a conflict of interest, pointing out that the new guidelines only apply to EPA funding, not industry funding that could pose an even greater conflict of interest.
"This directive is totally unnecessary and clearly political, not ethical," Swackhamer said.
When asked if board members with financial interests from industry or other government agencies also had a conflict, Pruitt said that the agency's ethics commission would address such questions on a case by case basis. "This is just about the EPA," he said.
CORRECTION (Nov. 3, 5:51 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of scientists removed from the EPA's Science Advisory Board. Six scientists were dismissed, not seven.