A controversial rule proposed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt would not apply to pesticide companies seeking permission from the EPA to introduce or keep potentially dangerous chemicals on the market, according to new analysis by environmental watchdog groups.
The proposed science “transparency” rule, first announced on April 24, would prevent the EPA from using scientific studies to protect air and water quality unless data behind the research is made available to the public. The proposal faced immediate pushback from scientists and environmental groups who call it a political giveaway to polluting industries that would place unnecessary burdens on researchers and severely limit the science available to regulators crafting policies for protecting public health.
However, the rule would not apply to pesticide companies seeking to register new chemicals, extend federal registrations for pesticides already on the market, change a warning label, or establish a product’s effectiveness, according to joint analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Beyond Pesticides.
“[Pruitt’s EPA is] saying we need all this data for regulating industry, but for things the pesticide industry is trying to get approved that may damage public health and the environment, it doesn’t apply to that,” said PEER attorney Paula Dinerstein in an interview.
The proposed EPA rule is modeled off legislation introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican backed by the oil and gas industry, who is notorious for using his position as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to undermine mainstream climate science. Polluters and anti-regulation conservatives have long complained that they do not have access to raw toxicological data linking air and water pollution to health problems that the EPA has used to expand pollution programs — which often require industries to spend more money on prevention and cleanup.
Scientists say such data is often linked to personal information from participants that can often be shared among researchers but not publicly released. They say requiring such disclosure would prevent the EPA from using landmark environmental health studies when establishing pollution protections, or at least make the process for using such data prohibitively expensive for researchers and regulators alike.
Smith’s legislation has failed to find support in Congress, but the industries that support the bill also have a friend in Pruitt, who promoted his political career by challenging EPA regulations on behalf of polluters and is under mounting scrutiny for various ethics scandals.
“The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end,” Pruitt said in a statement announcing the proposed rule last month.
Internal EPA emails released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act show that Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s chemical safety and pollution prevention office, warned her colleagues that an early draft of the rule should be revised to avoid imposing new costs and red tape on companies seeking approval of chemicals and pesticides. Beck worked for the American Chemistry Council, a powerful industry group, before the Trump administration appointed her to the EPA last year.
As currently written, the rule would apply to research from any source, whether that be independent environmental health researchers or studies conducted by regulated industries. But the rule would only apply to “dose response and data models” used to justify “significant regulatory decisions” meant to protect public health.
This means the rule would only limit research on the health impacts of pollutants that is used to justify regulations with a large economic impact, which is typically considered $100 million or more, according to Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.
Examples include Obama-era rules limiting the amount of climate-warming gases and dangerous toxics that power plants can spew into the air, both of which have been challenged in court and in Congress by conservatives and the energy industry.
Despite their widespread use, courts have repeatedly ruled that EPA decisions on the availability and use of individual pesticides do not appear to fall into this “significant regulatory decisions” category, according to Feldman.
“But there is still tremendous secrecy around these regulatory decisions and in bringing pesticides to the market,” Feldman told Truthout in an interview.
Pesticides are registered for sale with the EPA based on studies provided by the companies that make them, not based on science conducted or commissioned by the EPA, according to the groups’ analysis. The EPA uses this data to assess the environmental effects of pesticides, their impact on farmworkers, and allowable levels of human exposure via pest control products and food, but the public does not have access to this data until after a pesticide is registered and allowed on the market.
Even after a pesticide is registered, Feldman said watchdogs must request data backing the EPA’s decision under the Freedom of Information Act, which can be a lengthy process. If problems are discovered that suggest the pesticide could be hazardous to environmental or public health, then watchdogs must petition the EPA to cancel its registration.
“A cancellation proceeding is a very long process, it can take up to a decade,” Feldman said.
There are other deficiencies in the EPA pesticide program that Pruitt’s “transparency” efforts would not address. Currently, “conditional registrations” allow widespread use of potentially toxic pesticides that have not been fully tested. Rules protecting proprietary business information prevent the public from knowing how well pesticides actually work and what other chemicals are added to individual pesticide formulas, even if those chemicals are considered hazardous under federal law.
There would also be problems if Pruitt’s transparency rule were applied to pesticides. Feldman said studies on the human health impacts of pesticides already in use would suddenly be off-limits because much of the toxicological data from such studies cannot easily be scrubbed of personal information.
In fact, last year Pruitt denied a decade-old petition to keep the controversial pesticide chlorpyrifos out of the food supply after the agrichemical industry complained about the EPA’s use of data from independent studies linking the chemical to brain damage in children. The EPA made plans to ban chlorpyrifos from food production under the Obama administration, but Pruitt reversed course, saying more research is needed, even after years of scientific debate.
If Pruitt’s proposed “science transparency” rule were in place years ago, the EPA may have never considered a trio of studies released in 2011 that found a connection between prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos and diminished IQs in children during its scientific review of the chemical. That’s because the raw data in those studies is attached to personal information that cannot be released to the public.
“We don’t think this proposed rule is a good proposal for anybody, but what we are really trying to point out here is the hypocrisy of it,” Dinerstein said.
A spokesperson for the EPA told Truthout that the agency is currently evaluating the specific impacts the proposed rule could have on the agency’s pesticide program and welcomes public comment.