After Recent CASAC Meeting, Former Chairman Says, “If I Were Still Working for EPA, I Would Resign”

JCDH’s North Birmingham air quality monitoring station. (Source: Hank Black)

The recent public hearing of a top air pollution advisory committee exposed faults so grave that a former chair of the group wrote an article in the Washington Post on Tuesday that was headlined, “If I Were Still Working At the EPA, I Would Resign.”

Jefferson County air pollution engineer Corey Masuca, a member of the committee, wouldn’t go that far, but on Thursday he told BirminghamWatch that he thought the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee did need greater support from the Environmental Protection Agency to properly evaluate whether current pollution standards are adequate to protect public health.

Jefferson County and the rest of Alabama is in compliance with current air pollution standards, but close to 134 million Americans live in counties with worse air quality than allowed by the EPA for two of the pollutants – soot and smog.

That’s the word from the Environmental Protection Network, an expert group of former career staff and high-level bipartisan appointees of the EPA. It was formed in 2017 to provide a counterweight to the Trump Administration’s efforts to reduce regulations and launch attacks against climate change and other scientific conclusions.

The network’s statistics illustrate a growing concern in the scientific community that the Trump EPA has taken steps to stack the deck against strengthening those standards and possibly enable loosening them.

At primary issue is the composition and ability of the committee charged with recommending air pollution levels. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, known as CASAC, is chartered under the federal Clean Air Act with surveying recent science and advising EPA’s political leaders on whether changes in the National Ambient Air Quality Standards are needed.

The panel is composed of seven members. All but one are recent appointees, named after EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler cleaned house late last year. The new committee contained only one person from an academic research background. Most others, including Masuca, were from state or county agencies, and most had narrow backgrounds such as engineering, rather than health science of one discipline or another.

Operating Without a Net of Experts

So, with little institutional knowledge, they undertook their complex advisory task. In previous administrations, CASAC would be helped by external review subpanels of dozens of experts. However, those experts were dismissed by Wheeler. To handicap the committee further, two years were shaved off its deadline for completing its evaluation for soot, or particulate matter in the air. Now it is expected to produce its recommendation by December 2020.

At the public hearing last week, conducted by telephone, one former EPA official flatly called the CASAC process “a travesty.” That was followed this week by former CASAC Chairman Bernard Goldstein’s Washington Post op-ed.

Goldstein served as EPA assistant administrator for research and development under President Reagan. His article was cited by U.S. Rep. José E. Serrano, a Democrat who represents the Bronx in New York, while questioning Wheeler at a House committee meeting Monday and again when Wheeler was questioned the next day by U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, at a Senate committee hearing.

In the Post article, Goldstein said he would have resigned his positions under President Reagan “had the agency’s overall advisory processes been subject to its current destructive alterations.”

At the fractious CASAC teleconference on March 28, Goldstein expressed his concern over the committee and its current policies, which he said threaten to dismiss long-accepted scientific methods in which the “weight of evidence” is used to determine whether air pollution is a risk to human health. Instead, he said, some members favor alternate methods, such as requiring a direct causal link between air pollution and early death.

He also noted that no epidemiologist is a CASAC member, even though that scientific discipline “is central to understanding the health effects of both particulates and ozone.”

In his op-ed, Goldstein said the EPA’s current leadership “is destroying the scientific foundation of environmental regulations, to the detriment of the health of the American people and our environment.”

CASAC members were increasingly at odds, but the majority finally agreed to ask Wheeler to provide more help for their task. In an interview with BirminghamWatch this week, Masuca said he agreed.

“We would definitely like to have additional resources available to us. I can’t say if the EPA will reconstitute the review panel or appoint a similar one, but we do need additional support,” he said.

Asked if CASAC could meet its earlier deadline, Masuca said, “There are too many variables to tell, so I don’t know at this point in time. Yet, the meeting (last week) was important, and I’m optimistic about the outcome (of our work). I’m pleased to be on the committee.”