Photo: AP

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency announced today that the best scientists in the country won’t be able to advise the agency on environmental science.

Rumors of the announcement had been swirling for months after the EPA canned most of its science advisory board members. Scott Pruitt made it official on Tuesday by signing a directive that any members of EPA’s science advisory board can’t have accepted a grant from the agency. It’s an unprecedented move and yet another step for Pruitt in turning the EPA into an extension of the industries it’s supposed to regulate. The move stands in stark contrast to the EPA’s mission to “protect human health and the environment.”

“Never before in almost 40 years of functioning of Scientific Advisory Boards has it been deemed necessary to restrict individuals with EPA grants from serving,” Genna Reed, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Earther.

The agency awards more than $1 billion in grants a year to scientists at university and state and local governments across the country. The EPA’s analysis indicates that board members received $77 million in competitive grant money over the past three years, something many people would think indicates they are Good at Science.

In announcing the reasoning, Pruitt used scripture in a way I’m still trying to make sense of:

“In the Book of Joshua, there’s a story about Joshua leading the people into the promised land after Moses passed away. This is sort of the Joshua principle. As it relates to the grants and to this agency, you can choose to serve on the council or choose the grant but you can’t choose both.”

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So who will lead us to the scientific promised land now that those EPA-funded scientists have been excluded? Aside from you and me (I’m assuming you aren’t an EPA-funded researcher and if you are, I’m sorry), a whole lot of folks who typically rely on private sources of funding (or as the directive likes to call them, people with “fresh perspectives”). In many cases, that includes the very industries the EPA is supposed to be regulating to safeguard human and environmental health.

“While industry certainly has a right to be heard on the science advisory boards, and always had a representative as far as I can remember, they should never dominate. There was nothing in my experience at the Agency that would have made me think we needed to enact this sort of makeover,” Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the EPA under George W. Bush and former New Jersey governor, told Earther. “[Senator John] Barrasso is wrong in saying what Pruitt was doing with advisory boards was good because it allowed more state input. This isn’t about geography, it should be about science. Lead isn’t better absorbed by someone in the West than the East — it’s just plain bad for you.”

If these people have their way, they’ll be leading us to a promised land of fringe science and air and water clogged with smog and toxic chemicals.

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Pruitt announced that Michael Honeycutt, who heads Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division, will now lead the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. He is a scientist at least, so good job there. But his views are extremely outside the mainstream.

In 2012, Honeycutt told the U.S. House Science Committee with a straight face that “some studies even suggest PM (particulate matter) makes you live longer.” This statement ignores the vast preponderance of evidence that shows otherwise. It might serve Honeycutt well to read up all about PM’s negative health impacts on the EPA’s page dedicated to them. Hell, you may want to read it before Honeycutt starts advising the EPA, which has already shown a penchant for deleting information that’s inconvenient.

“Michael Honeycutt is a concerning individual to lead the advisor board,” Reed said. “He’s worked closely with TERA [Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment] to recommend loosening of standards for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”

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TERA is a group that collected 30 percent of its funds from for-profit sources last year and “has been paid by chemical companies for research and reports that frequently downplayed the health risks posed by their compounds” according to the New York Times. 

Equally worrying is Tony Cox, a private risk analyst, who will now head the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. John Walke, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Earther that the committee was established by Congress to advise the EPA “when the agency establishes or revises national health standards for air pollution like smog or fine particle pollution.”

And true to form, Tony Cox denies smog has negative health impacts. Here’s what he told Congress in 2015 about a proposed EPA ozone rule:

“There is no need to repeat the costly effort to obtain better public health by further reducing ozone levels when we already know from abundant historical experience that doing so does not work.”

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Denying climate science is a bonkers proposition, but denying that smog is bad for you is seemingly unfathomable. But because it is 2017 and because Trump is president and Scott Pruitt heads the EPA, this is where we are.

“The Trump EPA is stacking the nation’s premiere science advisory bodies with industry reps and conservative state officials who are not nearly as expert as the purged scientists,” Walke said.

The rest of the advisory boards will be announced in the coming weeks. A list leaked to E&E News shows that the boards will include members from fossil fuel companies, a chemical trade group, and red state governments according an analysis from the New Republic.

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Pruitt claims this is all in the service of “sound science” and “back to basics.” But there’s nothing sound or basic about installing people who shill for industry in positions that let them have a say about rules affecting said industry. While Trump’s other cabinet appointees have generally bumbled through their jobs, Pruitt has been uniquely aggressive in turning his agency into a rubber stamp for industry.

“The Trump EPA’s continued attack on science will likely be one of the most lasting and damaging legacies of this administration,” Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), said in a statement following the decision.

This post has been updated to include comments from Christine Todd Whitman.