EPA panel backs tough new ozone regs -- after getting $200M in grants, lawsuit charges

Critics slam the Clean Power Plan for putting jobs at risk; Shannon Bream reports on 'Special Report'


Scientists on a key panel handpicked by the Environmental Protection Agency to green-light new environmental emissions regulations have received nearly $200 million in grants from the agency, according to a federal lawsuit which charges the past funding calls into question the objectivity of the process.

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit, claims tough new EPA regulations that critics say would cost the industry trillions of dollars and thousands of jobs are being waved through by scientists dependent on the federal agency. Of the 26 members appointed to the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee Particulate Matter Review Panel, 24 received direct or indirect grants from the EPA totaling more than $190 million claims the institute’s lawyer.

“This clearly violates the law and makes a mockery of the notion of ‘independent’ scientific review,” Energy and Environment Legal Institute General Counsel Steve Milloy said.

The panel’s endorsement last October was necessary for the EPA to implement its “Particulate Matter 2.5” regulatory agenda, which controls airborne pollutants such as soot and dust in outdoor air. The new regulations, which updated 2008 rules, are opposed by the trucking and mining industries, as well as Milloy’s institute, which claims to focus on free-market solutions to energy and environmental problems.

The institute has filed a lawsuit against the EPA claiming the panel, which was appointed last year and by law is supposed to be independent and unbiased, is compromised by the past grants.

“Not only does the EPA pay researchers to produce controversial research that advances its regulatory agenda, but the agency pays the very same researchers to review their own controversial work,” said Milloy.

Both the Clean Air Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act require CASAC panels be independent and unbiased, Milloy said. A second EPA-appointed panel, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC Ozone Panel, also has been compromised by millions of dollars in grants from the EPA, Milloy claimed. 

Of the 20 CASAC Ozone Panel members, 17 received grant money from the EPA, Milloy said, for more than $192 million.

Scientists on both boards told they question the funding figures cited by Milloy, and disputed the charge that federal grants undermine their objectivity.

“Almost all academics working on air quality have received funding from EPA at some point,” said Daniel Jacob, a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Center for the Environment.

“There’s also this silly perception that scientists would be lemmings obliging the hand that feeds them,” Jacob said, adding that the appointment process provides for recusal in the case of a direct conflict of interest. “Scientists love nothing more than to challenge authority.”

Jacob has received at most $2 million from the EPA over his career, but said he probably has received more money from the power industry over the years than from the EPA.

George Allen, of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, which has received nearly $4 million in EPA grants, sees no connection between getting a competitive research grant from EPA and being biased in support of tighter and tougher air quality standards.

“There are many opportunities for public comment at every step of the air quality regulation review process,” Allen said. “Anyone with concerns related to conflict of interest in either direction can raise the issue with the EPA Science Advisory Board in a public meeting.”

The biggest concern, Allen said, is with the potential bias someone who works for an industry that could be impacted by EPA regulations under consideration.

The lawsuit was filed in May in the District of Columbia’s U.S. District Court on behalf of the Western States Trucking Association and Dr. James Enstrom, an epidemiologist retired from the University of California. The advocacy group is seeking an injunction barring the panel from meeting and wants the court to force the EPA to reconstitute the panel.

Other EPA-appointed panelists who Milloy believes are tainted by hefty EPA grants include:

-          Panel Chair Ana Diez Roux, professor of epidemiology at Drexel University, who allegedly received more than $33 million in grants

-          Douglas Dockery, director of the Harvard-NIEHS Center for Environmental Health
 and associate professor of medicine, who allegedly received more than $16 million in EPA grants

-          Elizabeth Lianne Sheppard, a research professor of Environmental Health, Occupational & Environmental Medicine at the University of Washington, who was allegedly awarded $51 million in EPA grants

Both the Clean Air Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act require CASAC panels be independent and unbiased, Milloy said. A second EPA-appointed panel, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC Ozone Panel, also has been compromised by millions of dollars in grants from the EPA, Milloy claimed.

However, Michelle Bell, a professor of Environmental Health at Yale University, took issue with counting grants doled out to universities and research institutes as going directly to their employees who were chosen for the EPA panels.

“Let me be perfectly clear – my job is not contingent on receiving grants from EPA,” Bell said. “I am a tenured professor at Yale University. Should Yale never receive another penny through an EPA grant from my research, I would still maintain my position as a tenured Yale professor.”

In both her scientific research and in her dealings with the EPA, no person associated with the agency has ever instructed her directly or indirectly to push the scientific results or interpretation of scientific results in a certain direction, Bell said.

“In fact, in my experience EPA wants the scientists to let the science speak for itself,” Bell said. “They want the true assessment of the actual scientific evidence.”

EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones declined to comment on the suit. The EPA has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, and a federal judge will determine whether the panel can continue or the EPA must dismiss it and convene a new one.

Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman