The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting the health of American citizens and the environment through government legislation and regulation. While the agency operates in a political landscape, its ultimate agenda is to create policy that is grounded in scientific data and thus beneficial to national health. While these claims appear legitimate and trustworthy when stated on the EPA’s website, they do not translate into actual legislation and actions within the agency.
Recently, the EPA has been taking action to eliminate the Office of the Science Advisor, who has previously provided scientific data and advice to the EPA administrator. The current EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is responsible for enforcing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other environmental legislation. The EPA plans to merge the duties of the Science Advisor with those of the Office of Science Policy, which would place the EPA’s chief scientist a least two rungs lower in the chain of command than the EPA administrator. While the EPA claimed in a statement that this was simply intended to reorganize the agency and combine positions that performed similar functions, this plan detaches the role of science in policy-making and reduces the power of unbiased scientists in creating legislation that supposedly is meant to preserve health. According to the deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Michael Halpern, the elimination of the role is “a pretty big demotion… everything from research on chemicals and health, to peer-review testing to data analysis would inevitably suffer”.
While the EPA is working under reduced staff under the Trump administration, it is vital that the voices of scientists still be heard when making decisions. Unfortunately, the American people cannot be rest assured that those in current control of the EPA will heed these scientists. In addition to reorganization that demotes scientific advice, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler cannot be trusted to create unbiased policy. Earlier in his career, Wheeler worked as an advisor to Senator Jim Inhofe, a blatant climate change sceptic. Considering the wealth of scientific information indicating the presence of climate change, this does not reflect well on Wheeler. In addition, when Wheeler worked as a lobbyist, one of his biggest clients was a coal company, indicating his tendency to support corporations rather than the environment. While Wheeler claims to have a passion for helping the environment, his backstory should at least cast a shade of doubt regarding where his true loyalties lie. Detaching him from direct scientific advice will only exacerbate these issues.
Several other actions indicate that the EPA’s policy-making decisions are moving in a less scientifically-based direction. On Sept. 25, the head of the Office of Children’s Health, Dr. Ruth Etzel, was placed on administrative leave. She was a well-respected pediatric epidemiologist who frequently attempted to increase pollution regulation, causing her to clash with appointees of the Trump administration who sought to loosen such rules. This, in addition to eliminating the science advisor role, paints a grim picture of the EPA’s true dedication to human and environmental health. According to the leader of a union with about 900 EPA employees, Michael Mikulka, these actions are “an attempt to silence voices whether it’s in the agency’s Office of Children’s Health or the Office of the Science Advisor to kill career civil servants’ input and scientific perspectives on rule-making”.
More corruptions also linger from the previous EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. Under Pruitt’s influence, the EPA appointed scientists that also work for the organizations that the EPA is meant to regulate, introducing a conflict of interest. Pruitt also placed restrictions on the types of scientific studies that the EPA can recognize, further reducing science’s impact on EPA policy.
Ultimately, the EPA’s claims hide the bitter truth that policy is becoming less and less influenced by science and protection of national health, which the EPA was established to protect in the first place. However, we are not hopeless against this corruption; as citizens living in a democracy, it is not only our right but also our duty to speak up when other voices, such as those of science,
are left out of the decision-making picture. While government agencies are capable of great corruption, they are also capable of positive change: change that begins with individuals lobbying for the protection of their health and the health of the world around us.
Kate Lee is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at Katherine.firstname.lastname@example.org .