U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

02/14/2018 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 02/14/2018 13:23

Carper, Whitehouse Send New Internal EPA Documents to GAO as Federal Watchdog Reviews EPA’s Efforts to Change Federal Advisory Board Nominations Process

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to provide additional information relevant to GAO's review of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) policies and procedures for nomination and selecting federal advisory committee members. Newly acquired internal EPA documents suggest that political appointees at EPA under Administrator Pruitt are disregarding normal procedures designed to ensure compliance with federal law and risk undermining the integrity and impartiality of these boards.

The senators wrote, 'As GAO has previously observed, the EPA Science Advisory Board staff office ensures 'that the Board's panelists are independent and that panels as a whole are balanced in their viewpoints and expertise.' That includes ensuring compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the Ethics in Government Act. 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. Documents recently obtained by us, attached here, suggest that political appointees at EPA under Administrator 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 documents Senators Carper and Whitehouse sent to GAO today show that EPA political appointees disregarded the recommendations of EPA career staff regarding the most qualified scientists, as well as concerns raised related to potential conflicts of interests and lack of qualifications of two nominees to EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). Ultimately, the EPA political appointees named these two nominees to CASAC in spite of the concerns that were raised, while rejecting the nominations of other qualified and independent scientists.

GAO initiated a review of EPA's process for selecting federal advisory committee members following a request from lawmakers, led by Senators Whitehouse and Carper, made last July, and GAO expanded the scope of its review following a second request in November in response to EPA Administrator Pruitt's directive to exclude qualified scientists from EPA advisory committees.

Last month, Senators Carper and Whitehouse questioned EPA Administrator Pruitt on his appointment of two advisors to serve on EPA's Federal Advisory Committees even after public commenters warned that they may have financial conflicts of interest, may risk an appearance of impartiality and may lack the scientific expertise necessary to serve.

The EPA is home to 23 advisory committees, which advise the agency on environmental science, public health, safety, and other subjects central to the EPA's work. Federal law requires the committees to remain balanced in the viewpoints they represent and functions they perform.

The letter to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro can be found below and in pdf form here.

February 14, 2018

Dear Mr. Dodaro,

Thank you for accepting our request to review[1] the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) policies and procedures for nominating and selecting federal advisory committee members. We write to follow up on our November 9, 2017 letter asking you to consider several questions concerning Administrator Pruitt's October 31, 2017 Directive governing the selection of scientists to its 22 federal advisory committees.[2] We write to bring additional information to your attention that we believe is relevant to your inquiry.

As GAO has previously observed, the EPA Science Advisory Board staff office ensures 'that the Board's panelists are independent and that panels as a whole are balanced in their viewpoints and expertise.'[3] That includes ensuring compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the Ethics in Government Act. 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. Documents recently obtained by us, attached here, suggest that political appointees at EPA under Administrator 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 first such document (an Executive Briefing Summary, dated September 14, 2017) reviewed four options to fill the one upcoming vacancy on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), ranging from making no changes to replacing the entire board. The summary also documents the process the career staff office undertook to identify and vet, with public input, the 42 candidates that were nominated. EPA's career staff recommended 11 candidates as 'most qualified.'

The second document (an Executive Briefing Summary, dated September 20, 2017) provided additional information after career staff briefed Dr. Richard Yamada, a political appointee and current Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA's Office of Research and Development, on September 14. The document indicates that Dr. Yamada directed the staff office to further vet nine candidates, only one of whom was originally recommended as 'most qualified.' Staff concluded that one of these candidates, Dr. Tony Cox, a private consultant who had previously done work for ExxonMobil, the American Chemistry Council, and the American Petroleum Institute, had a possible financial conflict of interest, a possible appearance of a lack of impartiality, and lacked scientific experience. Another, Dr. Larry Wolk, was criticized for having 'no direct experience in health effects of air pollution,' among other things. Staff also warned that the appointment of both individuals would actually decrease geographic diversity on CASAC, undermining a stated goal of the October 31, 2017 Directive.[4] Ultimately, EPA disregarded these concerns and appointed Drs. Wolk and Cox to CASAC, with Dr. Cox as its chair.[5]

In light of these documents, we urge you to additionally consider the following in your analysis:

  1. Has it been the practice of the Administrator and/or political staff to reject the advice of career staff on appointments to science advisory boards like and including CASAC? If not, has EPA articulated a credible process for changing that practice now?
  2. Does the SAB staff office currently have in place adequate policies and procedures to vet nominees for compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the Ethics in Government Act, and other applicable rules?
  3. When career staff advice is rejected, is there an increased risk that EPA will appoint representatives to its boards in violation of applicable laws and regulations?
  4. Is the process and its outcomes (appointments) consistent with the Directive and the Federal Advisory Committee Act?

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

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[1] https://www.whitehouse.senate.gov/news/release/senators-call-on-government-watchdog-to-examine-independence-of-epa-advisory-committees

[2] https://www.whitehouse.senate.gov/news/release/senators-to-gao-examine-pruitts-science-advisory-board-double-standard

[3] Government Accountability Office, EPA's Science Advisory Board Panels: Improved Policies and Procedures Needed to Ensure Independence and Balance, July 2001.

[4] https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/administrator-pruitt-issues-directive-ensure-independence-geographic-diversity

[5] https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-intention-nominate-members-three-important-federal-advisory-committees