Government watchdog to investigate Scott Pruitt’s shakeup of EPA advisory boards

Senators accuse EPA chief of undermining impartiality of committees.

CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has agreed to investigate how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selects members of its federal advisory committees after Administrator Scott Pruitt announced plans last fall to ban scientists from the committee who have received EPA grants.

Democratic lawmakers had warned the watchdog agency that Trump administration appointees were inappropriately interfering in the selection of members of the expert panels. In a letter to Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) made public Tuesday, GAO officials agreed to take up the investigation and said it would be underway shortly.

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Last month, Carper and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a letter to the GAO alerting the office that newly acquired internal EPA documents suggest that political appointees at the EPA under Pruitt disregarded the procedure for nominating people to serve on the boards. By ignoring protocol, the senators suggested the political appointees wanted to ensure more pro-industry members filled the ranks of the committees.

The EPA is home to 23 advisory committees, which advise the agency on environmental science, public health, safety, and other subjects central to the agency’s work. The staff office for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, for example, is required to ensure that the board’s members are independent and generally balanced in viewpoints and expertise. The staff must comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the Ethics in Government Act, which prohibit political interference in the selection of board members.

Normally, when candidates are nominated to serve on advisory committees, EPA’s career scientists and lawyers provide input to the administrator regarding which nominees have the right scientific expertise and which have conflicts of interests. And normally, the administrator follows the career staff’s recommendations. But under Pruitt, political appointees are playing key roles in selecting committee members.

Pruitt revamped the agency’s science advisory boards last October, increasing industry representation. He refused to renew the terms of many advisory committee members and barred anyone receiving EPA research grants from being on the committees. Critics contend that the new rule will force out independent academics while favoring industry researchers. Pruitt is expected to eventually appoint a majority of industry-allied researchers on the boards.

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Carper and Whitehouse said they recently obtained documents that suggest political appointees at EPA under Pruitt are disregarding normal procedures and advice from career staff. “By doing so, they are avoiding the procedures put in place by the agency to ensure compliance with federal law and risk undermining the integrity and impartiality of these boards,” the senators wrote in their letter.

On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee emphasized in a tweet that internal EPA documents show that agency leadership “ignored procedures and advice from career staff” and instead are appointing advisers that may have financial conflicts of interest and may lack the scientific experience to serve as scientific advisers.

Pruitt’s prohibition against scientists who have received EPA grants applies to membership of several advisory panels, including the Science Advisory Board, a panel of approximately 45 scientists, examines key scientific issues related to EPA regulations; the Board of Scientific Counselors, a committee of about 20 people, which works with agency scientists, advising the agency’s Office of Research and Development on its research programs; and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which provides technical guidance specifically related to air pollution standards.

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The EPA’s Science Advisory Board has not met in at least six months, E&E News reported Tuesday. Members of the board contend they are being shoved aside to avoid getting in the way of Pruitt’s anti-regulatory agenda. A member told E&E News that Pruitt is slowing down the advisory panel’s actions until the terms of about a dozen members expire at the end of September. Once their terms end, Pruitt will be able to place pro-industry members on the board.