EPA advisory panel gets earful at public hearing

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2018

An embattled EPA advisory committee held a public hearing in Washington today, with members getting two broad strains of feedback.

The first came from industry representatives who repeatedly questioned whether a draft EPA research roundup overstates the health risks posed by airborne particulates.

The second came mainly from scientists who charged the advisory panel lacks the breadth of know-how needed to review the adequacy of the existing particulate matter pollution standards.

“Today you should ask yourselves, ‘Do we have the necessary expertise in all of those critical scientific disciplines to do this review,'” Chris Frey told the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). “And clearly the answer is no.”

Frey, a North Carolina State University environmental engineering professor, was on an auxiliary scientific panel that was assisting in the review before acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler summarily disbanded it two months ago. In a letter this week, Frey and 14 other former members urged that the panel be revived. They also called on the seven-member CASAC to reject the accelerated timetable imposed by EPA earlier this year that calls for the review’s completion by late 2020.

If Frey was strikingly blunt, his concerns were echoed in varying degrees by about half of more than two dozen speakers at the session, the start of a two-day CASAC public meeting.

Without an adequate review, “the end result may be particulate matter standards that insufficiently protect the United States public, especially our most susceptible populations such as children and the elderly,” said Fernando Garcia Menendez, another N.C. State professor, in reading a statement signed by more than 200 scientists and engineers.

By law, CASAC plays a central role in advising EPA during periodic reviews of the ambient air quality standards for particulate matter, ozone and four other “criteria” pollutants.

Wheeler replaced five members on the committee around the same time in October that he disbanded the auxiliary review panel. The bulk are now state and local regulators with little direct experience in air pollution research.

In a statement, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said the new members “are highly qualified and have a diverse set of backgrounds in fields like toxicology, engineering, medicine, ecology, and atmospheric science.” In a separate release, however, the agency left open the possibility that Wheeler could add consultants “to provide relevant expertise” if needed.

EPA last revised its particulate matter standards in 2012. The purpose of this week’s meeting is to give CASAC a chance to review the draft research roundup — formally known as an integrated science assessment, or ISA — that syntheses the findings of some 2,700 studies on particulates’ health and ecological effects.

Fine particulates are already linked to a variety of heart and lung problems including increased risk of premature death. The draft ISA also cites findings of nervous system effects, including “limited evidence” of a connection to Alzheimer’s disease. The draft, also released two months ago, more generally cites evidence that EPA’s existing particulate matter standards may not be strong enough to protect public health.

But industry advocates and consultants broadly challenged whether that evidence showed that particulate exposure was necessarily responsible for perceived health effects.

Association “is not causation,” said Jia Coco Liu, an environmental epidemiologist speaking on behalf of the Electric Power Research Institute. “Characterizing the causal effect of PM on human health is critical for informing policymaking on ambient PM.”

“The causal framework is not adequate,” Ted Steichen, senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a prepared statement.

The draft ISA also lacks a sufficiently detailed “protocol” showing how EPA decided which studies to include, as well as the agency’s methods for evaluating study quality and other factors, Steichen said.

Following a lunch break, the CASAC meeting continued through part of this afternoon with a discussion of individual chapters of the ISA. It is scheduled to end tomorrow afternoon with a summary of “major findings and recommendations” on the draft assessment.