EPA’s ‘secret science’ rule faces outpouring of opposition during emotionally-charged hearing

The wonky rule is generating a groundswell of objections.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt walks during a picnic for military families on the South Lawn of the White House July 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt walks during a picnic for military families on the South Lawn of the White House July 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

A hearing on a proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule took on an increasingly urgent and emotional tone on Tuesday, as speakers decried an effort that experts say would have a dramatic impact on the agency’s ability to protect human health and the environment.

The morning half of a lengthy hearing set to run from 8 a.m. to as late as 8 p.m. in Washington, D.C. saw speakers from a diverse array of organizations. Larger groups, like the Environmental Defense Fund and the American Lung Association, were joined by a number of smaller groups, as well as a few individual advocates testifying on behalf of themselves.

One by one, speakers spoke out against the rule, introduced under former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. The rule, marketed as a transparency effort countering so-called “secret science,” has its roots in the longtime efforts of retiring House Science, Space, and Technology Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The congressman has sought for years to restrict the EPA’s ability to use scientific evidence sourced from studies utilizing private data.

Those efforts failed to gain traction over the years, thanks largely to near-unanimous agreement from scientists and other experts. Lots of scientific data is largely kept private due to individual privacy concerns — health data is anonymized for instance — in addition to the prohibitive cost and time associated with publicizing such information. But Pruitt introduced a rule along the lines of Smith’s efforts in April, over the objections of his own staff.

Pruitt is now gone, but outcry over the proposed rule remains. Around 4,500 comments were submitted in response to the policy suggestion, seemingly high for a measure widely regarded as relatively niche.


With more than 100 speakers scheduled to testify throughout the day, Tuesday’s hearing reflected similarly strong opposition to the measure, which is formally entitled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.

Health and environmental experts spoke passionately throughout the morning about the impact the rule would have on major regulations relating to air pollution, chemicals, and general safety. Nearly 70 medical, academic, and scientific groups oppose the rule, according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Representatives from many of those organizations spoke throughout the day, elevating the dismay experts and advocates feel over the proposed change.

Were the rule to go into effect, “the EPA would be unable to meet its mission and statutory obligations,” emphasized Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Multiple speakers drew parallels to the tobacco industry’s history, an argument that has been made more broadly about the EPA’s actions during Pruitt’s tenure. For years, the industry lobbied to exclude studies indicating secondhand smoke could be deadly. Paul Billings, a senior vice president with the American Lung Association, argued that the EPA is now doing essentially the same thing in introducing a rule that would effectively “censor science.”

Lawmakers were also present. Reps. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) both spoke in opposition to the rule, with Tonko emphasizing his “grave concerns” and calling the rule a “thinly veiled campaign” to limit scientific research.


Others came representing only themselves — one young woman spoke to the impact of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, on her family, and offered that such tragedies are more easily prevented using rules like those currently utilized by the EPA. Another advocate noted that she had taken time off work to come and speak, a luxury she emphasized not everyone had.

Several speakers underscored the rule’s likely outsized impact on vulnerable communities, including people of color and low-income workers. Appearing on behalf of the Farmworker Association of Florida, Eugenia Economos passionately spoke to the plight of farmworkers, who are disproportionately exposed to pesticides and other substances.

“You’re talking about people who are minorities, many of whom are immigrants, and they’re already under attack,” Economos told listeners, going on to emphasize that “farmworkers are exposed to multiple different kinds of pesticides” throughout their daily work and rely on government regulations to protect them from harm.

Moreover, she said, given the vulnerable immigration status of many farmworkers, the decision to publicly disclose data would prompt organizations like hers to opt out of studies they might otherwise have participated in.

“We would never engage in studies if we could not ensure that our people, our community [would not be] protected,” Economos said.

Widespread opposition to the rule did not preclude a handful of supporters from speaking, including representatives from the Pavement Coatings Technology Council and the American Petroleum Institute. Steve Milloy, well-known as a climate science critic, was among those who offered his praise for the rule.


“Science transparency in EPA regulatory action is long past overdue,” Milloy said, going on to add that “thanks to the Trump EPA, the days of secret science are coming to an end.”

But supporters were largely absent throughout the bulk of the day, with the majority of speakers strongly opposed to the proposed rule. It was unclear, however, to what extent that opposition might register in any decision to proceed with implementing the measure. A 2015 Congressional Budget Office assessment of the cost of a similar measure indicated the ultimate expense could be around $250 million.