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Deborah Swackhamer on the long-term risk of tainting the science behind federal policy

The so-called “transparency rule” would exclude all epidemiology research from use in setting clean-air standards.

Environmental Protection Agency
Deborah Swackhamer on the current state of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "It’s like having foxes advise the farmer on how to run a henhouse."

Deborah Swackhamer
MinnPost photo by Andrew Wallmeyer
Deborah Swackhamer
Second of two parts.

Deborah Swackhamer is well known to many Minnesotans for her leadership of the Water Resources Center and the project that produced the state’s landmark Water Sustainability Framework. A couple of generations of students know her as an outstanding teacher and researcher at the University of Minnesota, from which she retired in 2015.

Outside Minnesota, Swackhamer may be better known for her work with professional associations and government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she served on advisory boards until this past March.

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Last week we had a wide-ranging conversation about her EPA experience. Yesterday’s Earth Journal focused on the Trump administration’s meddling with those boards; today I’m excerpting her comments on a parallel effort, more subtle but also more damaging, to redefine and restrict a formal role for science in federal decision-making that she traces back to Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln appreciated that the world was getting complicated. He was not a scientist himself, but a lot of the things he was dealing with involved science, and so he created the National Academies of Science, in order to have the best scientists in the country at his beck and call when he needed help. That’s when science advice became formalized within our government.

Fast forward to this century: Different presidents have needed science in different ways, and science has informed the legislative branch as well. We have the national academies of engineering and medicine now, and within just about every federal agency there is some kind of science advisory board for outside, objective advice — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has one, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and so on.

The Interior Department has dozens, maybe over a hundred, some of them citizen boards along with the science boards. [Ryan] Zinke shut down a whole bunch of these early on, and he’s been quietly dismantling the rest. As an aside — in some cases he didn’t really understand what they did. So he dismantled citizen boards made up of property owners, ranchers, people he actually wants on his side. [We were speaking just before Zinke resigned as secretary.]

With the science boards, in most cases the members are from academia and aren’t involved in the politics or policymaking at all. You need the 10 best people on ozone in the country, you call them in —  it’s an efficient way to get your advice.


By law, our policies in many areas must have some foundation in science. Presidents come and go, congressional committees come and go, with different priorities, and they can ignore the advice. George W. Bush was given new ozone and particulate standards to consider, and he kind of said, OK, thank you, we’re not at a place where I think this is necessary. CASAC [the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee] was upset, but they’re advisers, that’s all they are.

No president or Congress has successfully messed with the work of these external advisory committees to this degree until the Trump administration, and it took me a few months, maybe even a year, to figure out that they’re not really getting rid of science. It’s a lot more subtle, in my opinion.

They’re using science to get their way, by stacking them with people that are going to provide the kind of “science” that will support their approach. And if you think this sounds like just messing around on the edges, I’ll give you  case in point.

There’s a stand-alone statistics board at EPA, made up of economists who provide advice on the statistical value of a life, OK? Or, what is a wetland worth? Or the value of a public health improvement — less hospitalization, fewer children dying of asthma.

For certain policies and rule-making, Congress requires a cost/benefit analysis, and EPA cannot propose a rule that costs more than it’s going to benefit society.

The Obama administration put forward the mercury rule [to limit power plant emissions] — it’s kind of astonishing, really, that there wasn’t already one in place. And now the Trump administration has rescinded it.

The only way to remove the mercury was with scrubbers, like they use for sulfur dioxide, but these would be more efficient. So EPA calculated the cost of the power industry having to put in new scrubbers, and also the benefit to society.

And these new scrubbers not only removed mercury, certainly a benefit to public health, but also particulate matter to a much finer degree than current scrubbers. So they also calculated the “co-benefit” on particulates — the value of getting something on the side, for free, if you will. That’s how it has been done for, I want to say, decades.

What [former EPA head Scott] Pruitt started and [his successor, Andrew] Wheeler is continuing to do is quietly change the cost-benefit rules by having this external advisory committee say the analysis shouldn’t include co-benefits. And they’re getting their way, getting people to come up with science to support their ideology — which is not the mainstream policy viewpoint, or science. This is how they’re going to show that the mercury rule doesn’t meet the cost/benefit requirement.

It’s like having foxes advise the farmer on how to run a henhouse.


The “transparency rule” [proposed by Pruitt, to bar consideration of studies unaccompanied by their “raw data”] would be deadly for protecting public health because it would exclude all past, present and future epidemiology studies from being used in rule-making. This research is the basis of all of our air regulation. All.

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The data can’t be shared because they include identifiable, private information on individuals’ health problems, which is hidden in the computations, but would be revealed in the raw form.The rule has been announced but not yet been written, and it’s my understanding that because of the immense blowback from the medical, public health and pediatrician communities over the impact on air quality rules — I mean, a flood of comments before there was even a comment period — that Wheeler has said he has taken it under consideration and they won’t issue the rule for a while.


From what I read, and from informal conversations around the coffee pot when I’m in Washington, I would say that Wheeler is a more effective administrator than Pruitt from Mr. Trump’s perspective. He is carrying out the exact same agenda, and he’s doing it far more effectively. He’s a more savvy person,  he understands Washington completely, having worked on the Hill and as a lobbyist, behind closed doors. He knows what flies in the courts and what doesn’t, whereas Pruitt was like Pickett’s Charge — he was going to change everything and didn’t care if they sued him.

Consequently, Wheeler is more dangerous in carrying out the mission of deregulation, which will lead to less public health protection and a less clean environment.

To his credit, he has reached out to the agency. He meets with staff. He communicates to the staff. Although there’s still a tremendous morale problem, people in the middle ranks are pleased just to be acknowledged by Wheeler, whereas Pruitt had no regard for staff and was universally disliked.

So they’re keeping their heads down, doing their jobs. It only becomes unbearable when they’re told that what they’ve just done isn’t going to be used, or there’s a new policy that’s totally against what they’ve been doing for the last 10 years.


What is at stake as a result of all this?

EPA used to be the gold standard for things you wanted to know if you were a citizen. I would tell my students: If you want to know about climate change, about a wetlands, the EPA science pages are some of the best out there, period. And now they’re not.

And I would have said the same about the Department of Interior, and now I don’t know. I still think it about NOAA, but they’re getting heavy pressure, too.

EPA has lost 200 to 300 scientists from the 1,500 that were at the Office of Research and Development alone. And that’s going to continue because they can’t rehire; there’s a hiring freeze. They can’t even hire a postdoc.

They’re seeing more of their senior, experienced, institutional-knowledge people go — all of that’s getting lost. They’re losing their scientific prowess, their reputation, their ability to support their own rule-making. In two years, if the administration changes, or Congress changes, and they want to beef up EPA again, it’s going to take an awfully long time to rebuild that expertise and that respect.

At the moment, you can’t possibly get a job in the government as a scientist — that’s across the entire federal government. They’re not hiring anywhere. I’m hoping against hope that this may begin to change now that we have an appropriations committee in the House that’s run by a Democrat — a very strong Democrat, and her name is Betty McCollum. I’m counting on her to do her best to stop the hemorrhage in funding to our environmental agencies.

Because if we go through another six years of this, God help us.