Witnesses Highlight Concerns over Transparency of Data and EPA Process

Washington DC – Today, the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing to examine the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) process for setting standards under the Clean Air Act.  Members questioned the witnesses on the role of scientific advice from the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), and the economic underpinnings of EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analyses (RIA).  Witnesses described potential shortcoming in the assumptions, models, and data used to project costs of compliance and the associated health and environmental benefits.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) said, “In the debate over EPA issues, it can often seem like two ships passing in the night; one side talking about jobs, and the other discussing children’s health.  This hearing is designed to provide context to this conversation and to examine the science and technology assumptions behind air quality standards.”

Harris continued, “Because the EPA is not transparent with the sources of their data, from what we have seen so far, EPA seems to rely on making statistical hay out of minor associations between pollutants and premature mortality.”

Discussing the politically driven policy focus at the EPA, Dr. Roger McClellan, the former Chair of CASAC, said that “Remarkable progress has been made in improving air quality in the United States during the last four decades using the various regulatory tools provided by the Clean Air Act.”  However, regarding the unprecedented pace of EPA’s Clean Air Act agenda, Dr. McClellan questioned the data used in claiming increasing health benefits.  “In my view the USA is reaching a point of diminishing returns in setting the NAAQS [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] at lower and lower concentrations with each review and treating each reduction as a success story for public health,” McClellan said.

Chairman Harris said that public health claims should be “grounded in science, not hyperbole and if our current air is such a threat to human health that it is killing hundreds of thousands of people each year, I am very interested to review the information that the Agency relies on in establishing this relationship.”  Accordingly, two weeks ago in a letter to the EPA Administrator, Harris requested they make Federally-funded data sets and the associated science, upon which these health claims appear to be based, publicly available.

Moreover, EPA’s Inspector General recently released a report highlighting the Agency’s inability to follow basic peer review and scientific integrity guidelines in developing its endangerment finding on carbon dioxide.  Members today raised concerns that similar problems may plague EPA’s Science Advisory Board and the CASAC. 

Dr. Michael Honeycutt, Chief Toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that “The roles of uncertainty and bias in EPA’s assessments have been severely downplayed and should be reexamined.”  Dr. Honeycutt said that “To claim that a policy decision is ‘based on the science’ without putting those decisions in appropriate context with real world implications is not just a misuse of science but causes harm to the public.” 

Along these lines, Chairman Harris expressed concerns over EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s confusing recent statements that particulate matter “does not make you sick.  It is directly causal to dying sooner than you should” and that “if we could reduce particulate matter to healthy levels, it would have the same impact as finding a cure for cancer.”   

At today’s hearing Harris asked witnesses how such simplistic linear claims of causation can be made.  As an example he noted that even though there has been a dramatic decrease in air pollution, there has simultaneously been a significant increase in asthma cases.  Witnesses explained that the EPA tries to oversimplify very complicated calculations when determining health benefits, and usually do not provide the data or assumptions they utilized.

Discussing the methods EPA uses in making its claims, Dr. Anne E. Smith, Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting, said that EPA relies on vague assertions they refer to as “co-benefits.”  “As EPA releases each of its proposed and final air quality rules, it typically emphasizes that the rule will generate health benefits that exceed its costs,” Dr. Smith said.  “However, close inspection of the associated RIAs reveals that a majority of those benefits – sometimes all of them – are not from reductions in the pollutant(s) being targeted by the new regulation.”  Smith said that the bulk of the benefits EPA claims are usually attributed to reductions in fine particulate matter that EPA already regulates separately.

The following witnesses testified before the Committee:

Dr. Roger O. McClellan, Advisor, Toxicology and Human Health Risk Analysis       

Dr. George Thurston, Professor, New York University School of Medicine

Dr. Michael Honeycutt, Chief Toxicologist, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

Dr. Robert F. Phalen, Professor of Medicine and Co-Director, Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory, University of California, Irvine

Dr. Anne E. Smith, Senior Vice President, NERA Economic Consulting

Mr. J. Edward Cichanowicz, Consultant