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More questions about a Trump admin war on science

Posted August 24

New deregulations and study cancellations are adding to a long list of environmentalist concerns that the Trump administration is putting science on the back burner.

Friday, the Interior Department asked the National Academies of Sciences to halt a study of the health effects of a common mining technique in Appalachia, which is believed to deposit waste containing toxic minerals in ground waters.

Also last week, the administration dissolved its 15-person federal advisory committee on climate change. And newly released documents shed light on meetings between Environmental Protection Agency leaders and agriculture industry lobbyists right before making a decision not to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos.

"We're running backwards. Could we have August without doing something incredibly damaging to public health?" said Andrew Rosenberg, director at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I think this is part of a bigger pattern. And while all of the activity is going on with regard to security issues, and the deep concerns over white supremacy and racism, there are whole other stuff that have incredible implications to public health."

From national monument reviews to examining pesticide restrictions President Donald Trump has shown his administration is considering all angles to roll back environmental regulations -- at times by making changes to agency procedures and rulings in a seemingly unprecedented way.

Ending studies

Interior's request to halt its study on the health risk of mountaintop removal represents a familiar pattern to critics.

"Mountaintop removal mining has been shown to cause lung cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems," Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House natural resources committee, said in a statement.

"Clearly this administration and the Republican Party are trying to stop the National Academy of Sciences from uncovering exactly how harmful this practice is," Grijalva said.

Rosenberg said there are signs of such a strategy throughout various government departments and agencies. Interior also froze the work of more than 200 advisory boards, committees and subcommittees in May.

"There's concern about whether the climate change data sets will be continued. There's this issue of withdraw of mountaintop studying. Ending the stream protection rule means you are no longer collecting data on toxicity levels in streams," Rosenberg said. "This idea that if you don't measure it, then you don't have to worry about it, that's the wrong way to go. The problems don't disappear."

The dismissal of the federal advisory committee on climate change, first reported by The Washington Post, comes with the same fears for environmental groups and scientists.

The experts who sat on the now-defunct committee warn that without their advice and guidance, the release of the federal climate report could be the equivalent of a large scientific data dump absent of useful context for a public that lacks scientific expertise.

One of the panel's jobs would be to make recommendations to government agencies based on the findings of a forthcoming congressionally mandated climate report. The National Climate Assessment, a federal report required every four years, provides a comprehensive statement from the scientific community on where the nation stands in relation to climate change.

However, in early August other scientists authoring the report, which is due out this year, sounded the alarm that they fear the results might be buried by the White House.

"We're in some uncharted waters here," an author of the report who asked not to be named told CNN at the time. "It's either going to become an official US government report, or it won't be, in which case we would have to find another outlet for it."

The report from the US Global Change Research Program is scheduled for public release in the fall.

At the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt has been blunt about his desire to change the way many scientific boards are run, including adding fossil fuel industry voices into the early stages of the fact finding process.

"The citizens just don't trust that EPA is honest with these numbers," Pruitt told The Wall Street Journal in February. "Let's get real, objective data, not just do modeling. Let's vigorously publish and peer-review science. Let's do honest cost-benefit work. We need to restore the trust."

Part of expanding that trust is bringing the voices of the fossil fuel industries into the mix, which might also include meeting with lobbying groups such as the one that occurred prior to EPA's pesticide decision.

Pruitt "stressed that this is a new day, a new future, for a common sense approach to environmental protection," according to notes from the meeting circulated among his staff first reported and obtained by The New York Times.

"We believe in dialogue with, and being responsive to, all our stakeholders," EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman told CNN in early August. "The difference between us and the previous administration is that we feel that the regulated community is an important stakeholder. Input from the technical and scientific experts on the ground is valuable to the regulatory process."

Before his return to Washington over the weekend, Trump signed an executive order last week that rescinds an Obama-era order that requires government agencies to account for future sea level rise when building federal infrastructure. The White House touted the move as part of Trump's proposal to spend $1 trillion to fix aging US infrastructure.

But some environmentalists see the executive order as a growing trend by the administration to overlook environmental threats by understudying them, or ending data collection all together.

"The administration comes out and says you don't have to come out and make development decisions on sea level rise for permitting -- that makes no sense," said Rosenberg. "That means you don't have to care about the science -- this is a familiar pattern."

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