WASHINGTON – An Environmental Protection Agency panel that advises the agency’s leadership on the latest scientific information about soot in the atmosphere is not listed as continuing its work in 2019, an EPA official said.
The 20-person Particulate Matter Review Panel, made up of experts in microscopic airborne pollutants known to cause respiratory disease, is responsible for helping the agency decide what levels of pollutants are safe to breathe. Agency officials declined to say why the EPA intends to stop convening the panel next year, particularly as the agency considers whether to revise air quality standards.
Environmental activists criticized the move as a way for the Trump administration to avoid what they described as the panel’s lengthy but critical assessment of how much exposure to particulate matter is acceptable in the atmosphere.
“To me this is part of a pattern,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-oriented environmental nonprofit group. “We’re seeing EPA trying to cut science out of the process.”
She and others noted that the move follows other decisions at the EPA they find worrisome, including eliminating a senior science advisory position and pressing for new rules that would restrict the number and type of studies the EPA could consider when writing new regulations.
Goldman, an environmental engineer, wrote on Twitter that the EPA quietly telegraphed its latest move in a personnel announcement Wednesday. In that announcement, the EPA said that a smaller, seven-person umbrella advisory board would from now on be conducting reviews of federal air standards and that the administration hoped to complete any revisions by late 2020.
When asked about the future of the 20-person scientific board, the EPA spokesman confirmed that the board was not “listed” in agency documents as continuing its work past 2018. The body is slated to meet in December.
The EPA is responsible for updating six air standards every five years under the Clean Air Act: carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, lead and ozone.
The smaller, seven-member group, known as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, is legally obligated to provide advice to the administrator about those air quality standards. But the work of its sub-panels, such as the one on particulate matter, is not required by law.
Those panels are typically made up of researchers, doctors and others with specific expertise in the individual pollutants. Their reviews can take as long as 18 months, Goldman said.
At the same time, the CASAC also is going through a shake-up. Andrew Wheeler, acting EPA administrator, said he is installing new members to that panel. They include a biochemist from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; an air pollution control engineer with the Jefferson County, Ala., Department of Health; a toxicologist with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality; and a pulmonary doctor and professor emeritus from the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Lianne Sheppard, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Washington who until Wednesday served as a member of the CASAC and also is on the particulate-matter review board, expressed concern that the resulting panel may be too small and inexperienced in some of the specific issues to handle the new volume of work.
“They’re being asked to implement a new process, which will significantly increase their workload,” Sheppard said. “All of this will result in poorer-quality scientific oversight.”