“Do not trust the EPA to protect your environment.”

“Do not trust the EPA to protect your environment.” This is actually a statement made by one scientist at the EPA regional office. Pretty scary, huh? And, please realize, that as our dogs develop the same illnesses and cancers that we do, they too, are affected by environmental toxins.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded with the simple yet profound charge “to protect human health and the environment.” Yet a new Union of Concerned Scientists survey of scientists at the agency reveals that challenges from industry lobbyists and some political leaders have led to the suppression and distortion of EPA scientific findings—to the detriment of both science and the health of our nation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists say that more than half of the nearly 1,600 EPA staff scientists who responded online to a detailed questionnaire reported they had experienced incidents of political interference in their work. On numerous issues—ranging from mercury pollution to groundwater contamination to climate change—political appointees have edited scientific documents, manipulated scientific assessments, and generally sought to undermine the science behind dozens of EPA regulations.

These findings highlight the need for strong reforms to protect EPA scientists, make agency decision making more transparent, and reduce politicization of the regulatory process. Congress, the next president, and the next EPA Administrator must restore independence and scientific integrity to the EPA by:

  • Protecting EPA Scientists: Scientists should be free to report the distortion, manipulation, and suppression of their work without fear of retribution. Congress should pass a whistleblower law that includes protection for scientists. The EPA should adopt a communications policy that lets scientists speak freely to the press about their findings.
  • Making the EPA More Transparent: Too many decisions are made behind closed doors with little accountability. The EPA’s scientific findings should be freely available to the public. The EPA should open up its decision-making process to congressional and public scrutiny to help reveal misuses of science
  • Reforming the Regulatory Process: The White House should not change scientific findings in order to weaken, delay, or prevent new public protections.
  • Ensuring Robust Scientific Input to EPA’s Decision Making: The EPA should review and strengthen how it uses the scientific expertise of its staff and external advisory committees to create policies—especially when scientific input is critical or required by law.
  • Depoliticizing Funding, Monitoring, and Enforcement: Problems with funding, monitoring and enforcement also need to be addressed by Congress and the next President to ensure that the EPA is the robust environmental agency that our country needs.

Based on this survey, House oversight committee Chairman Henry Waxman today sent the following letter to EPA chief Stephen Johnson:

Almost 1,600 EPA scientists completed the Union of Concerned Scientists survey questionnaire. Over 22% of these scientists reported that “selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome” occurred “frequently” or “occasionally” at EPA. 94 EPA scientists reported being frequently or occasionally “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document.” Nearly 200 EPA scientists said that they have frequently or occasionally been in “situations in which scientists have actively objected to, resigned from or removed themselves from a project because of pressure to change scientific findings.”

Political appointees at EPA and other agencies appear to be a major source of political interference. Over 500 EPA scientists knew of “many” or “some” cases “where EPA political appointees had inappropriately involved themselves in scientific decisions.” Even more EPA scientists knew of “many” or “some” cases “where political appointees from other federal agencies,” including the White House, “had inappropriately involved themselves in decisions.” In open-ended essay responses, “nearly a hundred EPA scientists identified the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as a primary culprit.” These essays included numerous comments like “OMB should stop interfering in EPA Science” and “[t]he unprecedented and unwarranted influence of the EPA’s scientific work and findings by the White House and OMB must end.”

Overall, 889 EPA scientists said they “personally experienced at least one incident of political interference during the past five years.” Based on the survey, there may have been as many as 2,604 incidents of political interference at EPA during that period of time.

When asked about the role of science in EPA decisionmaking, the scientists provided some troubling responses. Nearly half of the scientists said that EPA determinations “occasionally, seldom, or never make use of the best judgment of its scientific staff.” Over 550 scientists reported that the agency “occasionally, seldom, or never heeds advice from independent scientific advisory committees.”

These survey results suggest a pattern of ignoring and manipulating science in EPA’s decision making. At May’s hearing, the Committee will examine one apparent example of this disturbing trend: EPA’s recent revision of the national air quality standards for ozone. You should also expect members of the Committee to ask about these survey results and other evidence of political interference with science at EPA.

Sincerely, Henry A. Waxman, Chairman

Click here to download a pdf of the report.