By Lisa Friedman © The New York Times Co.
WASHINGTON » President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency was rushing to complete one of its last regulatory priorities, aiming to obstruct the creation of air and water-pollution controls far into the future, when a senior career scientist moved to hobble it.
Thomas Sinks directed the EPA’s science advisory office and later managed the agency’s rules and data around research that involved people. Before his retirement in September, he decided to issue a blistering official opinion that the pending rule — which would require the agency to ignore or downgrade any medical research that does not expose its raw data — will compromise American public health.
“If this rule were to be finalized it would create chaos,” Sinks said in an interview in which he acknowledged writing the opinion that had been obtained by The New York Times. “I thought this was going to lead to a train crash and that I needed to speak up.”
With two months left of the Trump administration, career EPA employees find themselves where they began, in a bureaucratic battle with the agency’s political leaders. But now, with the Biden administration on the horizon, they are emboldened to stymie Trump’s goals and to do so more openly.
The filing of a “dissenting scientific opinion” is an unusual move; it signals that Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the EPA, and his politically appointed deputies did not listen to the objections of career scientists in developing the regulation. More critically, by entering the critique as part of the official Trump administration record on the new rule, Sinks’ dissent will offer Joe Biden’s EPA administrator a powerful weapon to repeal the so-called “secret science” policy.
EPA career employees this month also quietly emailed the results of a new study concluding that the owners of half a million diesel pickups had illegally removed their emissions control technology, leading to huge increases in air pollution. And some senior EPA staff members have engaged in back-channel conversations with the president- elect’s transition team as they waited for Trump to approve the official start of the presidential transition, two agency employees acknowledged.
Current and former EPA staffers and advisers close to the transition said Biden’s team has focused on preparing a rapid assault on the Trump administration’s deregulatory legacy and reestablishing air and water protections and methane emissions controls.
“They are focused like a laser on what I call the ‘Humpty Dumpty approach,’ which is putting the agency back together again,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator who served in the Obama administration.
The transition team has plans to revamp scientific advisory boards that Wheeler and his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, had stacked with allies of private industry and purged of many scientists.
“They seem hyper-focused on what it’s going to take to get things back on track,” said Chris Zarba, former director of the EPA’s science advisory board, adding, “I think they’re going to do a full reset.”
Racing against those efforts is Wheeler, who has a long list of priorities that aides and confidants said he is determined to complete before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. He also has maneuvered legally to erect time consuming hurdles that Biden will have to clear to unwind some Trump administration policies.
At the top of Wheeler’s to-do list is finalizing the science rule, officially called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.”
Under it, the agency would have to dismiss or give less weight to scientific studies that fail to release all their raw data to the public. Wheeler says the rule’s opponents prefer that regulatory decisions be made in “a back room, a proverbial smoke filled room.”