Under Fire for Potential Bias, Panel Starts Vetting Soot, Smog Standards for EPA Political Leaders

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Local air pollution expert Corey Masuca is in Washington, D.C., this week as a new member of an EPA panel charged with advising the government on whether new scientific studies warrant maintaining or lowering current standards for acceptable levels of air pollutants known to cause harm to public health.

The EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is tasked with assessing the health risks of breathing fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, or soot, one of six pollutants for which it sets national standards under the Clean Air Act. Even at current standards, PM2.5 can negatively affect many people with lung and cardiovascular problems, but recent studies have found it also can raise the risk for dementia, kidney disease and other health problems.

CASAC also is responsible under a separate timetable for reviewing recent science that might affect standard changes for ground-level ozone, or smog. Regardless of the committee’s final advice, any action on keeping current standards or reducing the acceptable level of pollutants will be up to EPA’s political appointees, including Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

The panel has assumed greater importance – and garnered considerable controversy – since the EPA under President Trump earlier this year dismissed two large outside panels of academics and other scientists that previously helped the seven-member committee evaluate evidence for particulate matter and ozone.

 Members Want Scientists Reinstated

In fact, three CASAC members in recent public comments to EPA called for the discarded science panels to be immediately reconvened “to provide the needed expertise in the review process,” in the words of Mark Frampton, of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

The same committee members also questioned a newly expedited time-line for completing their data review. James Boylan, a manager with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division of that state’s Department of Natural Resources, called the schedule “very aggressive.” He said it was a mistake to compress multiple parts of the review into a single element and to not allow time for more public comment on their final draft, which is due in the spring of 2020. EPA leadership is scheduled to make a final decision in late 2020.

In another twist, the EPA Administrator reconstituted CASAC with five new members. Masuca, principal air pollution control engineer for the Jefferson County Department of Health, was appointed in early November.

Chair Criticized for Ties to Industry

The committee’s chair, Tony Cox, a Denver, Colorado-based consultant, and some other members – although not Masuca – have come under attack for previous comments doubting some of the science that helped set current standards for air pollution.

Cox, a risk analyst who has objected to accepted statistical models previously used to determine health risk from PM2.5, was recently bashed for conducting research and publishing papers with funding from large oil interests. He also acknowledged allowing the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, to review and edit one of his journal publications. Cox has said “research showing the connection between air pollution and serious human health consequences is overblown,” according to E&E News, a newsletter for energy and environment professionals.

“Certainly (Cox’s) ties to industry and comfort with allowing them to influence the science is concerning given he is heading a process where we know there will be heavy industry pressure to influence it,” according to Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists as quoted in E&E News.

Environmentalists also criticize CASAC as too small to evaluate the large mass of science involved and for its make-up largely of engineers representing state and local governments in conservative areas of the country, rather than a broader scientific and academic community. Such skewed membership, they say, will make it difficult to properly go through the studies that have emerged in the past five years.

Removing science and scientists from the equation makes it “easier for the administration to set a weaker standard,” Goldman told the Washington Post.

EPA also aroused the ire of citizen advocacy groups earlier this year by instructing CASAC to advise not only on the science of setting National Ambient Air Quality Standards for pollutants but also to consider how any reduction in acceptable levels would have “social, economic or energy impacts.”

Macusa recently told BirminghamWatch, “Technology and cost considerations are not (supposed) to be included in assessments as we review standards, but there obviously are going to be cost effects” for companies to implement technological controls. However, in CASAC’s review, he said, “We look only from a health-based perspective and cost is not considered to be a factor.”

Macusa said his 20 years of air pollution control work with the local health department qualifies him for the CASAC appointment. He also pointed to his experience conducting an epidemiological study to complete a doctoral degree in environmental health engineering from UAB and his law degree from Miles College as other potentially qualifying factors.

“Perhaps my legal and engineering experience would be of benefit to the entire committee,” he said.

Other CASAC members are Timothy E. Lewis of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sabine Lange of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and Steven Packham of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.