By Michael Bastasch
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to bring more transparency to the science his agency relies on to issue new regulations has met intense opposition from the left.
The New York Times launched a two-pronged offensive against Pruitt’s transparency policy that included an op-ed by the Obama administration’s top two EPA officials. They said Pruitt’s policy puts “profits of regulated industries over the health of the American people.”
The Times also published an article focused on objections to Pruitt’s policy, headlining that “scientists see an attack on science.” Critics say Pruitt’s policy could expose confidential patient data and proprietary industry data, and also be used to strangle EPA’s ability to issue new regulations.
Pruitt publicly announced his science transparency policy in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. Pruitt said EPA would soon only be allowed to rely on science that’s been fully made available to the public.
For years, Republicans and some industries have worried about “secret science” being used to drive EPA’s regulatory agenda. EPA routinely cites studies that don’t make their data publicly available for other researchers to scrutinize.
Most notably, EPA used “secret science” to justify regulations on fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, in the 1990s. EPA cited two studies — by Harvard University and the American Cancer Society (ACS) that relied on medical data from thousands of individuals — to bolster their findings.
“Yet, because the personal health data associated with individuals participating in the studies were obtained with guarantees of confidentiality, Mr. Pruitt apparently would have argued for those studies to be tossed out had he been at the helm then,” former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and EPA clean air office head Janet McCabe wrote in their NYT op-ed.
“He and some conservative members of Congress are setting up a nonexistent problem in order to prevent the E.P.A. from using the best available science,” the former EPA officials wrote. “These studies adhere to all professional standards and meet every expectation of the scientific community in terms of peer review and scientific integrity.”
Essentially, Pruitt’s critics argue there’s no way for researchers to meet transparency requirements without breaching confidentiality. Yet, the legislation Pruitt’s policy is based on explicitly calls for redacting confidential information.
Texas Rep. Lamar Smith’s HONEST ACT requires EPA to make the underlying data of studies available “except that any personally identifiable information, trade secrets, or commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential, shall be redacted prior to public availability.”
In fact, Steve Milloy, publisher of JunkScience.com, said McCarthy and McCabe — indeed, all critics of Pruitt’s transparency policy — the research community already has mechanisms to protect confidential medical data.
“In the first place, the only information fields needed by researchers are date of death, age at death, cause of death and zip of residence at death,” said Milloy, a senior fellow at the Energy & Environment Legal Institute who’s spent decades working on science policy.
“None of that is personal or private as that data is include on death certificates, which are public records,” Milloy told TheDCNF.
“While some data sets used in some studies may also have other useful information like tobacco and alcohol use, occupation, education level and other data — no names, addresses, medical records or other private information is needed or wanted by researchers,” Milloy said.
Milloy pointed out that California routinely gives researchers “Public Use Death Files,” which he and colleagues used for a recent study challenging the link between PM2.5 and death. These files are scrubbed of any personal identifying information.
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