by Calvin Cupini
The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that scientific expertise is critical to developing effective strategies to protect public health. Yet while Americans are suffering under a pandemic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is trying to slip through a new rule that would restrict science used in setting environmental standards. On March 18, five days after the President declared a National Emergency, EPA issued revisions to a proposed rule from 2018 with the misleading name of Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science (STRS). Among other things this proposed rule would allow the EPA to completely ignore human health studies regardless of quality or merit if their data, including personally identifiable information, were not made public. Thus, the proposed rule aims to restrict the use of scientific research in revising existing and developing new environmental standards, leading to far-reaching long-term adverse implications for public health. The first iteration of this rule received nearly 600,000 comments.
Clean Air Carolina asked EPA Administrator Wheeler to take into account the difficulties the pandemic presents to the country, and allow public health experts and the scientific community the time they need to weigh in on the STRS rule while they respond to the COVID-19 crisis, as the rule would directly affect how EPA considers peer-reviewed public health studies. EPA’s logic was that because “regulations.gov is fully functioning, there is no barrier to the public providing comment during the established periods.” After pressure, EPA added 30 days to the comment period, but this still fails to acknowledge the global pandemic’s impact on experts for essential input, as it is unlikely the national emergency will end before the new deadline of May 18. Members of our Medical Advocates for Healthy Air program have been unable to develop comments because they are helping emergency medical teams in their hometowns. Thus the public health experts most knowledgeable about the impacts of the proposed rule are unable to comment because they are on the frontlines of fighting the pandemic.
In contrast to inadequately addressing requests from the scientific community, EPA has quickly responded to polluters on environmental regulations. EPA slackened monitoring and compliance requirements as of March 13, which may lead to excess air pollution during the pandemic. EPA sympathized with polluters that the “consequences of the pandemic may affect facility operations and the availability of key staff and contractors and the ability of laboratories to timely analyze samples and provide results.” No end date is in sight for EPA’s nod to polluters. If that weren’t enough, just as the COVID-19 death toll began its exponential rise, the administration officially rolled back corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, an Obama era rule that improved fuel economy and reduced vehicle air pollution. The timing could not be worse.
That’s why members of the Clean Air Carolina Science Advisory Board insist that EPA give public health scientists time to respond to the proposed STRS rule after the pandemic crisis has passed, no less than 30 days after the end of the national emergency. Furthermore, during this pandemic, EPA should focus on protecting public health, not exacerbating the threat to public health by backing down on air pollution compliance and regulations. There is no reason not to extend the deadlines for pending rulemakings while supporting essential compliance professionals in this time of disruption. Fred Rogers would tell us that in times like these, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” We owe it to our helpers, our medical and public health experts on the frontlines, to not make their work even harder during this time.