EPA denies firing members of scientific review board

Yahoo News
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks to agency employees in Washington, Feb. 21, 2017. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks to agency employees in Washington, Feb. 21, 2017. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)

The Environmental Protection Agency is challenging reports that several members from a major scientific review board were dismissed to make room for representatives from the fossil fuel industry.

Critics of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt viewed the news about the Board of Scientific Counselors as the latest step in an administration campaign to diminish the role of scientific evidence in the agency’s policymaking — further marginalizing climate science.

J.P. Freire, a spokesperson for the EPA, told Yahoo News Monday that no one was fired and the scientists in question have simply reached the end of their three-year contracts as board members. He said the EPA was simply opening up the process of assembling the new board and that former members could “easily make it through the process and sit on the board again.”

“Advisory panels like BOSC play a critical role reviewing the agency’s work,” Freire said. “The EPA received hundreds of nominations to serve on the board, and we want to ensure fair consideration of all the nominees — including those nominated who may have previously served on the panel — and carry out a competitive nomination process.”

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the EPA dismissed at least five members of the 18-person review board and was considering replacing them with representatives from industries responsible for polluting the environment — in other words, the very companies the agency is tasked with regulating.

Robert Richardson, an ecological economist at Michigan State University, spoke out against the decision on social media, and characterized the EPA’s move as a termination. He wrote, “Today, I was Trumped.”

The BOSC evaluates science and engineering research to provide advice and information to the EPA’s Office of Research and Development research program.

Ponisseril Somasundaran, a chemist at Columbia University, served on the board until Friday. He was one of the scientists whose position on the board was not renewed.

He agreed with Freire’s assessment that “fired” is probably the wrong term. He explained that he serves on other committees and panels and it’s customary for people to rotate out.

Somasundaran said several scientists were surprised by the news but he was not, because he received an EPA email several weeks ago saying that the positions would expire on April 30 and that the incumbents might not be renominated. Members of the board are limited to two consecutive terms.

“That kind of indicated that something might happen,” Somasundaran told Yahoo News. “So I wasn’t totally surprised, but I was surprised that so many were rotating out.”

He said that 13 of the 18 positions were not renewed but that four could not have been renewed anyway because they had already served two terms. Therefore, nine could have continued for another term.

“Not for the entire board, but it’s normal to tell a portion of them — usually one third — that they are going to ‘rotate out’ so that we can bring in new blood,” he said.

Somasundaran said it’s not necessarily a bad idea for the EPA to bring aboard businesspeople and other industry representatives for different perspectives because most of the board members are from academia.

“I think to have some diversity is a good idea, but if they are going to load up [on energy sector representatives], then it will be unfortunate. But I don’t know if that is their aim,” he said. “They will probably fill up the board with some academy people.”

Pruitt has close ties to the fossil fuel industry and has questioned the scientific consensus around climate change. In his previous role as Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the EPA more than a dozen times and accused it of burdening the energy sector with unnecessary regulations.

Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, released the following statement concerning the news:

“We are concerned about news that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has dismissed scientists serving on its Board of Scientific Counselors. Academic scientists play a critical role in informing policy with scientific research results at every level, including the federal government. We hope that EPA reconsiders this decision, and would welcome an opportunity to meet with Administrator Scott Pruitt to discuss how scientists can best advise the Environmental Protection Agency on environmental science.”

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