Stabenow raps ‘abrupt’ dismissal of EPA panel members

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Michigan U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow is expressing concern over the Environmental Protection Agency’s “abrupt” dismissal of nine members of a scientific review board, demanding an explanation from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors “serves an important role at EPA in providing recommendations and advice to EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and in contributing to the integrity of agency scientific decisions, including those pertaining to agriculture,” Stabenow, ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, wrote in a Thursday letter to Pruitt.

“Traditionally these counselors serve at least two terms, regardless of a change in administrations. The EPA’s vast research mandate — including research pertaining to pesticides and agriculture — requires that this board be comprised of experts from a broad range of specializations including engineers, economists, sociologists, toxicologists, chemists, climatologists, and hydrologists.”

Among those removed by the EPA this month was Robert Richardson, an ecological economist at Michigan State University.

Stabenow says she’s worried about the potential implications for American agricultural workers and the broader industry, noting that the research they review includes studies on pesticide safety and water quality.

She also asked Pruitt whether he intends to dismiss scientists on the 47-member Science Advisory Board, among other external advisory boards, such as the Food Quality Protection Act Science Review Board.

Critics of the EPA’s dismissals have said they raise questions about the role of science in the agency’s future research.

The EPA has said it might consider industry scientific experts for some board positions as long as the appointments do not pose a conflict of interest, and board members who would understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.

In an essay for Bridge Magazine, Richardson noted that board members are required to comply with ethics and conflict of interest disclosure statements, and may not receive grant funding from the EPA during their service.

“It would be difficult to imagine how representatives from regulated industries could effectively demonstrate that they have no conflict of interest with the agency’s activities,” Richardson wrote.

He chaired a subcommittee on the EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program.

Two of his subcommittee members, engineer Carlos Martín of the Urban Institute and economist Peter Meyer of the E.P. Systems Group, resigned last week in protest of the decision not to reappoint him and vice chair Courtney Flint.

The “effective removal of our subcommittee’s co-chairs suggests that our collective knowledge is not valued by current EPA administrators,” Martín and Meyer wrote in a letter posted on Twitter.

“We cannot in good conscience be complicit in our co-chairs’ removal, or in the watering down of credible science, engineering and methodological rigor that is at the heart of that decision.”

Stabenow asked Pruitt to provide a list of issues likely to come before the board over the next year and the timeline for individuals to apply for the board and for EPA to appoint new members.

She also requested a description of any delays expected in determinations, recommendations or advice by the board, as a result of the dismissals.

Richardson hasn’t decided whether he will apply again to be nominated to the board.

“There has been no call for nominations, so it is not clear how — or if — the board seats would be filled,” he said Thursday.