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Bullet policy · Jan 19, 2021

EPA Finalizes “Secret Science” Rule

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized its data transparency rule to limit the use of certain scientific studies in crafting regulations. The rule is one among several that the Trump Administration has been hurrying to finalize before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20, 2021.

The “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information” rule, which is also referred to as the “secret science” rule, was first proposed by the Trump Administration in 2018. The proposed rule was criticized and opposed by the scientific community, lawmakers, as well as former EPA officials. AIBS had urged EPA to rescind the “inadequately defined” proposed rule in written comments submitted to the agency.

The final rule, which went into effect on January 6, 2021, requires EPA to give “greater consideration” to studies for which the underlying “dose-response” data is publicly available and reproducible. Dose-response data measure the reaction of animal or human subjects to increasing levels of pollutants or other chemicals and are used in developing regulations. The final rule doesn’t force EPA to ban the use of scientific research for which the data are not public, rather it directs the agency to either give those studies “lesser consideration” or receive an exemption from the EPA Administrator. Notably, the new restrictions being applied to dose-response studies will apply not only to the agency’s regulatory decisions but also to “influential scientific information” disseminated by the agency to the public.

According to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the rule “empowers the American people to demand future transparency” from the agency. “The American public deserves to know which studies we are using to craft our regulations,” added Wheeler.

Critics argue that the rule would allow exclusion of important human health studies, particularly those that include confidential medical records and other proprietary data, and weaken air pollution and water regulations. “The people pushing it are claiming it’s in the interest of science, but the entire independent science world says it’s not,” said Chris Zarba, former Director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, according to the Washington Post. “It sounds good on the surface. But this is a bold attempt to get science out of the way so special interests can do what they want.”

A coalition of environmental groups, led by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), has filed a lawsuit against the rulemaking arguing that it violates protocols under the Administrative Procedure Act. EDF senior attorney Ben Levitan said that the agency “violated federal law by making the rule effective immediately, instead of providing the legally required 30-day window.”

The chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has called on Biden to prioritize the rollback of the regulation. “This regulation would prohibit EPA from properly considering scientific studies in its regulatory process unless those studies have made their underlying data publicly available,” wrote Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) in a January 7 letter. “As a result, it will undermine your environmental agenda for as long as it is allowed to remain in place.”