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Disbanded EPA Air Pollution Science Panel to Meet Anyway

Image by Ian Montgomery from Pixabay

On October 10th, the twenty scientists who make up the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel will meet to review the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards for particulate matter. The only catch is, EPA disbanded the panel a year ago.

This meeting is being hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists in an effort, they say, to ensure that science and scientists continue to be part of the process of setting air quality standards.  

“We've been following this for a long time and the ambient air pollutant standards are actually a place where science has, for a long time, informed the policy process,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This has worked well under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and even in the face of tremendous pressure from politicians or industries to not set a health-based standard like the Clean Air Act requires.”

But Goldman says that changed last fall when the Trump administration disbanded the Particulate Matter Review Panel and failed to convene another expert advisory panel on ozone. Both panels report to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, a small committee mandated by the Clean Air Act.

“That one is only seven people,” Goldman said. “They are generally selected for expertise on a wide range of pollutants and so they are not necessarily particulate experts.”

In April of this year, that Committee told the Trump administration that it needed the particulate matter panel to continue doing its job.

The panel’s primary focus is a specific type of air pollution – particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, commonly known as PM 2.5. It comes from a combination of vehicles and industrial sources. And, because it is so small, it can get deep into the lungs and cause a range of health problems.

“It's actually the pollutant that is responsible for the most death and sickness in the country,” Goldman explained.

The goal of the October 10th meeting is to respond to a recent particulate matter policy assessment from the EPA. In order to give the panel’s work the best chance of being accepted by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the Union of Concerned Scientists is mimicking the process of a usual EPA meeting.

“We wanted to make sure that we could follow that same process that EPA normally would do and that has been so effective for many years in ensuring we have health protective air pollution standards,” Goldman said.

All panel members have gone through an ethics review. The meeting will be hosted by a former EPA staffer who hosted these meetings while at the Agency. It will even be held at the same hotel as previous meetings. The meeting will be open to the public, and the results will be available for public comment.

“It will certainly go into the EPA docket,” Goldman said. “The EPA administrator will have that information in hand when he ultimately decides to set the standard.”

And, if the EPA sets a standard that is not in line with the science – as reviewed by the panel – their report could be the basis for lawsuits, according to Goldman.

“I think that's something that could be raised in a legal context because under the Clean Air Act they are required to follow the best available science,” Goldman explained. “They're required to set a standard that protects public health and welfare.”

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.