NC State scientist discusses Trump administration’s war on critical air pollution regs

NC State scientist discusses Trump administration’s war on critical air pollution regs

- in Environment, Top Story
Chris Frey, the Glenn E. Futrell Distinguished Professor at NC State’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering. From 2012-2015 he lead Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Subsequently, from 2015-2018 Frey served on an EPA air quality advisory panel that Administrator Andrew Wheeler abruptly disbanded. (Photo: NCSU)

For three years NC State University Distinguished Professor Chris Frey served on an EPA advisory panel that focused on air pollution, specifically minute-size particulate matter — PM 2.5 — that is no larger than a human hair.

PM 2.5 is emitted by power plants, construction sites, fires, industry and vehicles. It is especially harmful to human health because the particles burrow deep into the lungs. Exposure can cause or worsen asthma, heart problems, and breathing issues, and has been linked to premature death.

Members of Frey’s panel, which included 19 other scientists, such as UNC’s Barbara Turpin, were from varied backgrounds. They advised a much smaller EPA body, the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee on the standards for particulate matter.

And then one day, about a year ago, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler abruptly disbanded the particulate matter panel. Instead, the recommendations have been left to the seven-member Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, which Wheeler appoints, and which is led by a consultant for the very industries that emit these pollutants.

Earlier this month, the scientists who had served on the particulate matter panel met as a non-governmental, independent group to come up with science-based recommendations for this harmful air pollutant that eschewed political motivations and economic expedience.

Frey recently wrote about his experience on the panel — and the sudden firing — for The Conversation and The Revelator. Policy Watch followed up with Frey to talk more about his insights into how the EPA administration favors industry over public health.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Were you really notified by press release that Administrator Wheeler was disbanding the panel?

On October 10 2018, the EPA issued a press release that was kind of cryptic. The next day we got an email from the Scientific Advisory Board staff thanking us and saying they no longer needed our services.

And then on the 15th, the EPA released the draft of the Integrated Science Assessment [the scientific foundation for the review of air quality standards]. It was 1,800 pages long. We were well positioned to review that: We not only had the breadth and depth of expertise, but the diversity of experience, including multiple epidemiologists. The committee doesn’t have an epidemiologist. In 30 years of working on air pollution, I’ve never heard of most of these people as a go-to for air quality.

How does Wheeler’s decision to disband the panel play out in real life? What’s at stake?

Air pollution — exposure to fine particles — is a cause of premature death in the United States and around the world. Previous studies found that adverse effects could happen at levels as low as 11 micrograms per cubic meter [the unit of measurement for the concentration of air pollutants]. The current standard is 12 micrograms per cubic meter for particulate matter.

In the recent review, new studies show there is premature death at exposure to lower levels of the particles, down to 8 micrograms per cubic meter. We can say this with a high degree of scientific confidence. It’s a public health problem. The evidence warrants lowering the standard.

But the majority of the committee has said the current standard — 12 — is adequate. There are people who see that as a victory because the EPA could roll it back. 

It may be another five years before the standard is reviewed again. But we know with certainty that tens of thousands of people will needlessly  die prematurely over these next five years if the standard is not revised downward now.

Air pollution has environmental justice implications as well?

There are clear environmental justice implications.

One of the largest studies included an analysis of different racial groups, and the relative risk from air pollution for African-Americans is three times higher than the general population. They have a disproportionately higher rate of premature death. There are different factors in that: It could be socio-economic status, low access to health care, proximity to emissions sources. But the studies looked at race and income, and race is more important than income. 

By law, the standard has to protect the public health within an adequate margin of safety. That has been interpreted to mean the standard has to protect the general public and those at high risk, sensitive groups. It doesn’t require every individual to be protected, but it does require consideration of groups that are more susceptible to harm. 

What political and industry pressure do you think were at work in Wheeler’s decision to disband the panel?

One fact is that the Trump administration — Scott Pruitt and then Andrew Wheeler all share an agenda of rolling back existing standards. And they’re not promulgating new standards, or if they do, it’s very rarely.

Scott Pruitt appointed Dr. Tony Cox as chair of the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. He’s a consultant for regulated industries including the American Petroleum Council, the American Chemistry Council. He also consults for the National Sand and Gravel Association. 

Prior to his appointment, Cox had a track record. He wrote an op-ed in 2015 in the Wall Street Journal claiming the ozone rules were the most expensive regulations in U.S. history. The study that he cited was not peer-reviewed. It was funded by the National Association of Manufacturers. It was roundly debunked by experts. Dr. Cox testified before Congress and said there is no evidence that reducing ambient air pollution reduces health effects. He disregards scientific evidence.

From  2007 to 2018, I was directly involved in the  air quality science review process, which was robust and worked well under different political administrations. Barack Obama and George W. Bush were polar opposites, but the process worked how it should work in terms of scientific review.

But in last two years the political appointees make decisions without consulting career staff. They don’t care what anyone says. They take a sledgehammer to the science if it won’t lead to their ideology.

Under the Trump administration, the EPA seems very focused on saving industry money.

Wheeler said they’re saving  the regulated industry so much money. He doesn’t acknowledge there is a strong economic argument to regulate air pollution. Air belongs to everybody. There’s no price on it. But for those who suffer damage from air pollution, there’s no way for industry to compensate them except through the courts. And it’s very hard to win a tort case on air pollution. Air pollution is much easier to deal with via regulation.

The actions of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee could be legally challenged, right? And the courts generally defer to the agencies in terms of the science.  

The EPA will likely get sued when there is a final decision on this rule. But the EPA hasn’t followed its own procedures in reviewing the particle standard. Would the courts find that the committee should not be given deference? In this case, there is a strong argument that it doesn’t have the expertise and it lacks credibility to offer advice and judgment. And they’ve admitted they don’t have the expertise.

What’s your experience been with the rank-and-file staff at the EPA?

The career staff, the research staff, is based in Research Triangle Park. The ultimate decision is made by Administrator Wheeler, but the groundwork is done here. The EPA career staff have really approached this with the highest scientific integrity. They put forth information that isn’t consistent with the ideology of the Trump administration. They laid out their lines of reasoning to revise the standard lower. Career staff are getting punished for adhering to science. They are courageous.