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Senate Democrats highlight use of tobacco playbook to implement Trump’s anti-EPA agenda

Anti-environmental protection strategy similar to tobacco companies' fight against secondhand smoke regulations.

At October 3, 2018 hearing, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)  questioned Republicans' attempts to limit the use of scientific research at the EPA. CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images
At October 3, 2018 hearing, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) questioned Republicans' attempts to limit the use of scientific research at the EPA. CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The strategy adopted by the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and congressional Republicans to limit the agency’s use of peer-reviewed scientific studies when crafting new rules “sounds so similar to what the tobacco industry used to say,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said Wednesday at a Senate committee hearing.

Booker pointed to the use of the “secret science” term by opponents of EPA regulations. It’s the same rhetoric that was used by the tobacco industry in the 1990s when that industry was fighting tighter regulations of secondhand smoke, the New Jersey senator said at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management, and Regulatory Oversight.

“This is deja vu all over again,” Booker said, quoting Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame New York Yankees catcher.

Industry officials and congressional Republicans have been working for years to limit the types of scientific studies used in formulating rules and regulations. Republicans view President Donald Trump’s emphasis on deregulation as the perfect opportunity to undercut scientific research at the EPA.

In April, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed changes that would ban the use of any underlying data that isn’t available publicly. The idea was previously proposed by conservative lawmakers like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and champions of deregulation like Steven Milloy, a former consultant for the tobacco industry who has argued that air pollution is not a public health threat.

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Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), who chaired Wednesday’s hearing, has sponsored a bill aimed at limiting the types of science that the EPA can rely on for its rules and regulations.

The bill, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act) would prohibit the EPA from using any data that is not publicly available. It would also require all scientific studies to be replicable, and would allow anyone who signs a confidentiality agreement to view redacted personal data or trade information.

Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, testified at Wednesday’s hearing, explaining that the EPA and congressional proposals are “part of a deregulatory agenda.” Holt served as a congressman from New Jersey from 1999 to 2015.

In August, a group of Democratic senators submitted comments as part of the EPA’s proposed science transparency rule.

The desire to make all data used in rule-making publicly available represents a strategy to eliminate studies based on individual health records, the senators said. Individuals’ health records are important sources of information but are not normally exposed to the public in the interest of patient privacy.

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In the 1990s, tobacco lobbyists crafted a strategy for how to block future regulation of secondhand tobacco smoke. Christopher Horner, then a lobbyist for the law firm Bracewell & Patterson, recommended that his client, tobacco company R.J. Reynolds, advocate for what he termed “sound science” criteria in the EPA’s rules.

“Attempting to require the government to use only studies with publicly accessible data in its rulemaking, and thereby eliminating the most credible science based on actual health information, is a well-documented strategy with roots in the tobacco and fossil fuel industries,” the senators wrote.

In his testimony, Holt noted that the EPA’s transparency rule is opposed by most scientists and scientific organizations because the rule would result in the exclusion of valid and important scientific findings from the regulatory process.

“Whatever the ulterior purpose may or may not be, the effect of the rule would be a significant reduction in good, relevant science that could be used by EPA,” Holt said. “This change would likely result in harm to people and their environment.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), who attended the hearing, said he welcomed a discussion about using the best available science when federal agencies are crafting rules to protect the environment and public health.

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But Carper said in a statement Wednesday that there should be no disagreement when it comes to whether or not the best science available should guide policymaking.

“Regrettably,” Carper said, “with the Trump administration at the helm, we are seeing agencies like the EPA bend over backwards to undo vital environmental protections industry and lobbyists deem burdensome by attacking the very settled science that prompted the need for such protections in the first place.”