Three required scientific reviews for federally regulated air pollutants are on hold due to EPA delays and Administrator Scott Pruitt’s November shake-up of the external air quality science board that advises the agency.
Not only is the Environmental Protection Agency behind in giving the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) the review documents underpinning its air pollution standards that panel members evaluate independently of the agency, the board still lacks a functioning chair.
While delays could put off potentially costly regulatory requirements for industries to meet, health advocates said a lapse also could lead to disease and put lives at risk.
The committee and review panels are expected to convene about once a month, but members haven’t met since September, when they discussed the last stages of their review of sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant that contributes to respiratory diseases and the formation of particulate matter.
“We could have closed that out by now,” Christopher Frey, an environmental engineering professor at North Carolina State University who chaired the committee between 2012 and 2015, told Bloomberg Environment.
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. Written into the CASAC charter is the expectation that the board and its subgroups meet about once every four weeks, or 12 to 15 times each year.
CASAC review panels also are waiting for documents from the EPA so they can assess the standards for fine particulate matter—microscopic pollutants found in nature and formed during combustion—as well as standards for the ambient oxides of nitrogen and sulfur.
Tony Cox, who Pruitt appointed to chair CASAC in November, told Bloomberg Environment in a March 15 email he believes he has turned in all the required forms to lead the committee, but did not say when he will start working on the board.
‘A Lot More Toxic’
The clean air advisory board reviews emerging science and recommends whether six existing standards for air pollutants must be updated to protect public health. The administrator then sets the standards, which determine the extent to which emitters must control their pollution especially in areas that don’t meet air quality standards.
It’s not unusual for the EPA to take longer than five years to review its regulated air pollutants. The health-based standards for fine particulate matter were last reviewed by the agency in 2012.
Scientific literature published since then has associated the microscopic particles—formed from the combustion byproducts of coal-fired power plants, industrial facilities, and automobiles—with serious and sometimes fatal respiratory and heart diseases at concentrations below the current standards.
“We’re finding, even in the last five years, these particles are a lot more toxic than we thought,” George Thurston, professor of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine, told Bloomberg Environment.
“If [committee members] are not meeting and they’re falling behind their deadlines, it means we’re not using the latest science to evaluate whether people’s health is being protected,” said Thurston, who studies how exposure to air pollution including diesel pollutants and fine particulate matter affects human health.
Based on the anticipated schedule for fine particulate matter review, the EPA should have provided the air advisory board with the first drafts of the science assessment by spring 2017 and the risk and exposure review plan by summer of 2017.
“So we’re at least a year behind,” Lianne Sheppard, a CASAC member and professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, told Bloomberg Environment
A representative for the oil and gas industry said he’s less concerned about a delay in reviews because there is no need to tighten air quality standards, which would require industry to install more stringent pollution controls.
“All the easy controls have been put in place and those that aren’t are more costly,” Howard Feldman, senior director for regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, told Bloomberg Environment.
Duke Energy, the Edison Electric Institute, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers did not immediately comment.
The air quality board is also waiting for review documents from the EPA on the public welfare standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, which are set to protect the environment and plants.
‘We’re Kind of on Hold’
Because science advisory board members are special government employees, they must fill out “a number of forms” including the confidential financial disclosure form, before they can begin work, Peter Thorne, the outgoing chair for the overall Science Advisory Board and professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, told Bloomberg Environment.
When Cox, a Denver-based consultant with a specialization in risk analysis, received his financial disclosure form on January 4, he was asked to also fill out the subsection on supplemental ethics questions with respect to the ongoing sulfur dioxide review.
Cox has consulted for clients including oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council, and tobacco company Philip Morris International.
In a series of March emails, Cox told Bloomberg Environment he didn’t know why his appointment process has taken so long, but that he had received and submitted his paperwork this month.
The onboarding process takes time, but “on the order of weeks, not months,” Frey said. “Until he’s processed, we’re kind of on hold.”
Typically, advisory members are appointed to the chair position after they have served a term on the Science Advisory Board, Thorne said. This allows for a more seamless transition, since the new chairs already know what they’re working on and their paperwork is mostly in order.
The EPA countered that reviews weren’t delayed because of Cox’s paperwork, but because members “are awaiting the agency to finish documents to bring to the CASAC for review,” an EPA spokesperson said in a March 13 email.
‘Usually Doesn’t Take This Long’
CASAC also was about to wrap up a review for sulfur dioxide, one of the six regulated air pollutants.
The EPA is under a consent decree to sign a notice of proposal to either modify or retain the health-based sulfur dioxide standards by May 25, 2018, and sign a notice of final rulemaking no later than January 28, 2019.
After the air quality review panel last met in September 2017 to complete one of the final steps in the evaluation, the policy assessment review, panel members submitted written comments to the EPA liaison and the CASAC chair, Sheppard said.
Then the chair at the time, Ana Diez Roux, and another CASAC member’s terms ended in September and Pruitt rotated a third member off the board two years before her first term was up. Pruitt also banned EPA Science Advisory Board members who receive agency grants from serving due to what the administrator considered was a conflict of interest.
This put the sulfur dioxide review comments, which are supposed to be compiled into a report to be discussed at a public teleconference scheduled by the chair and the staff liaison, in limbo.
“The normal process is to have a teleconference within two months,” Sheppard said.
“It usually doesn’t take this long to complete a final review and provide our advice to the administrator,” Frey said.