- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2015

Several outsiders chosen to provide objective advice to the Environmental Protection Agency on clean air regulations or to police its science are simultaneously collecting research grants from the agency for work by themselves or their institutions.

The pattern is raising alarms inside Congress about possible conflicts and whether there is too cozy a relationship between the independent advisers and the agency that they are supposed to impartially advise on scientific matters affecting regulations.

All eight members on the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) have extended, been recipients of or are overseeing more than $19 million in agency grants earmarked to the institutions they work for or directly to themselves, procurement records show.

The EPA obtains advice and recommendations from CASAC and its Science Advisory Board (SAB) to formulate rules aimed at protecting the environment and public health. The two advisory committees review the scientific and technical basis for EPA decision-making, acting as an independent referee.

Just last month, the EPA rewrote the Clean Water Act, expanding federal domain over tens of millions of acres of private land.

CASAC’s chairman, Chris Frey, is also a representative on the SAB. While serving on SAB, the EPA extended his $893,439 grant to study the heath effects of air pollution and approved about $2.9 million in grants to North Carolina State University, where he teaches as a professor of environmental engineering.

Jack Harkema, who has served on CASAC since 2012, was the sole recipient of a $7.9 million grant running through December to study the interrelationships between cardiometabolic syndrome, which is associated with cardiovascular disease, and air pollution. He was also awarded a $600,000 grant from 2011 to 2013 to study the health problems that may be associated with some nanoparticals.

Of the eight CASAC members, all of their universities or institutions have received EPA grants during the time of their service, and more than a third of CASAC’s board members have been the personal recipient of a grant, the records show.

“At a time when the EPA is pursuing the most aggressive regulatory agenda in its 44-year history, its scientific review panels must have balance and impartiality. Unfortunately, conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency continue to plague CASAC, a panel intended to provide the agency with independent scientific assessments,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, told The Washington Times.

“If EPA science appears biased, its credibility suffers. Transparency is necessary to assure Congress and the American people that EPA is basing its costly regulatory decisions on the best available science and not a predetermined regulatory agenda. We need good science, not political science, at the EPA,” he said.

For sending grant money to the independent advisers who have helped police billions of dollars of new environmental regulations under President Obama, the EPA wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Times for questionable expenditures of federal money.

The EPA has long been flagged by lawmakers for a lack of transparency within its independent review panels. Last year, Dr. Robert Phalen, a co-director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory and a former member of the CASAC panel on fine particulate matter, testified to Congress that the current CASAC process “is seriously flawed, it is narrowly focused, and it is even ethically questionable.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, almost 60 percent of the members of EPA’s SAB and CASAC have directly received National Center for Environmental Research grants from the EPA since 2000, collecting about $140 million from taxpayers.

The EPA panels have been charged with excluding private sector expertise in their considerations and, for some of their members, making strong public statements in areas where they are being asked to provide impartial scientific reviews.

The EPA sees no problem with the current pattern of grants to the outside advisers.

The scientific community with specialized expertise — especially in the ozone — is small, and often the most qualified to sit on the panel have been recipients of federal grants, the agency says.

“If working as a CASAC or SAB board member were to mean the EPA couldn’t extend grants to that member’s university, or they couldn’t compete for EPA grants, then that would be a huge disadvantage to us,” Chris Zarba, a spokesman for the EPA, told The Times in an interview. “In narrowly focused topics, like the ozone, there might only be EPA funding available for research, and we need to compete for those experts to sit on our panels.”

Mr. Zarba said the EPA complies with the federal government’s ethics rules, and all the grants awarded to CASAC members were competitive. If members were on a panel reviewing work they had done, “they would identify it and take themselves off the panel, and if they didn’t, we certainly would,” he said.

Two years ago, the EPA’s inspector general reviewed 47 CASAC appointments and found that “the EPA has adequate procedures for identifying potential ethics concerns, including financial conflicts of interest, independence issues and appearances of lack of impartiality.”

The report said, however, the EPA could better document its decisions on CASAC members who appear to have a conflict of interest.

“The EPA does not consider a prospective or current member’s receipt of an agency or other federal research grant to create the basis for a financial conflict of interest,” the watchdog report said. “This is consistent with other federal guidance in this area.”

But the IG also noted: “[This] does not mean that a prospective or active member’s work on a specific grant or research project could not potentially present an independence concern.”

Mr. Frey, who serves as CASAC’s chairman, said the EPA’s so-called STAR grants are a badge of honor within academia and demonstrate the experience and level of qualifications a researcher has attained.

“Although EPA is a regulatory agency, it’s also a science agency — there’s a program part that develops the standards, and then a research side,” Mr. Frey explained. “The grants come out of the office of research and development and have nothing to do with policy.”

Mr. Frey said the grants he and other CASAC members have received are not to prove or disprove different EPA policy decisions. Rather they are independent studies, as crafted by the lead researcher, that serve as tools or methods for other scientists, he said.

“The grant issue is more of an issue of misperception. These studies are peer-reviewed and investigator-led grants, not determined by EPA. It’s not like they’re programmatic projects or preconceived ideas about what the outcome should be,” Mr. Frey said. “The studies in themselves don’t say you should have a certain standard. That’s a policy judgment.”

But Mr. Frey acknowledged his government-funded studies could be used as a tool by other scientists to help build the study behind that policy judgment.

Some lawmakers aren’t buying it.

“There is no end to the hypocrisy within the Obama EPA,” Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, told The Times. “Even their supposedly independent scientific advisers have no qualms of granting themselves millions of taxpayer dollars. This, in addition to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee’s long history of concealing their work from the public view, leads me to question whether their advice is sound and trustworthy in other areas, including EPA’s controversial ozone regulations.”

Last year, while serving as the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Mr. Vitter, along with Sens. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, John Cornyn, Texas Republican, Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, and James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, called for increased transparency from the CASAC in their rule-making process for emissions standards.

The senators called on states to review the process, in which many were critical of CASAC. Mississippi was the most blunt, declaring “the CASAC process is not open and does not sufficiently consider all viewpoints.”

The $19 million grant sum, as compiled by The Times, only evaluated grants that fell within the CASAC member’s time served on the EPA board. Personal grants awarded to them or their institution that didn’t overlap with their time served on the EPA board weren’t counted.

The smallest grant awarded to a CASAC member was to Ana Diez Roux, who was part of a group that received $556,144 to study the cardiovascular risk variances between neighborhoods with and without access to healthy foods and recreational facilities.

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