E.P.A. to Eliminate Office That Advises Agency Chief on Science

Source: By Coral Davenport, New York Times • Posted: Friday, September 28, 2018

A briefing room at the E.P.A. headquarters. The acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is overseeing a reorganization of the agency. Ting Shen/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to dissolve its Office of the Science Advisor, a senior post that was created to counsel the E.P.A. administrator on the scientific research underpinning health and environmental regulations, according to a person familiar with the agency’s plans. The personspoke anonymously because the decision had not yet been made public.

The move is the latest among several steps taken by the Trump administration that appear to have diminished the role of scientific research in policymaking while the administration pursues an agenda of rolling back regulations.

A spokesman for the E.P.A. did not return emails or phone calls requesting comment on the move.

Separately on Tuesday, in an unusual move, the E.P.A. placed the head of its Office of Children’s Health, Dr. Ruth Etzel, on administrative leave, while declining to give a reason for the move. Agency officials told Dr. Etzel, a respected pediatric epidemiologist, that the move was not disciplinary. As the head of an office that regularly pushed to tighten regulations on pollution, which can affect children more powerfully than adults, Dr. Etzel had clashed multiple times with Trump administration appointees who sought to loosen pollution rules.

The E.P.A.’s science adviser is currently Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, an expert on the risks of chemicals to human health who has worked at the E.P.A. since 1981, according to the agency’s website. Dr. Orme-Zavaleta did not respond to emails and telephone messages requesting a response for comment.

It was unclear whether Dr. Orme-Zavaleta would remain at the E.P.A. once the decision takes effect.

The science adviser works across the agency to ensure that the highest quality science is integrated into the agency’s policies and decisions, according to the E.P.A.’s website.

The changes at the two offices, which both report directly to the head of the E.P.A., come as the agency’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is overseeing a reorganization of the agency.

After dissolving the office of the scientific adviser, Mr. Wheeler plans to merge the position into an office that reports to the E.P.A.’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science, a demotion that would put at least two more managerial layers between the E.P.A.’s chief scientist and its top decision maker.

“It’s certainly a pretty big demotion, a pretty big burying of this office,” said Michael Halpern, the deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. “Everything from research on chemicals and health, to peer-review testing to data analysis would inevitably suffer,” he said.

The move comes after several months in which the leaders of the E.P.A. have systematically changed how the E.P.A. treats science. The agency’s previous administrator, Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July amid allegations of ethical violations, in April proposed a regulation that would limit the types of scientific researchthat E.P.A. officials could take into account when writing new public health policies, a change that could weaken the agency’s ability to protect public health.

Last year, Mr. Pruitt significantly altered two major scientific panels that advise the E.P.A. on writing public health rules, restricting academic researchers from joining the boards while appointing several scientists who work for industries regulated by the E.P.A.