EPA has a secret

By Kenneth Smith
Copyright 1999 Washington Times
May 13, 1999

When President Clinton announced plans this month that would boost the cost of popular sport-utility vehicles and the gas that fuels them, he did it, as usual, for the public's own good. New regulations designed to reduce already disappearingly small tailpipe emissions would, he said, improve air quality.

How did he know it would improve public health? Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency cited a 1995 study which argued that reducing the emissions would theoretically save 2,400 lives a year. Why is the agency so confident of the study's findings? Well, that's EPA's little secret: It won't release the data to the public, even though the public helped pay for the study with its tax dollars.

Because the agency is keeping its science secret, there is no way to know if the agency is relying on real science to prop up its proposed regulations or merely the junk science one has come to expect from EPA. There is also is no way to verify whether the hypothetical benefits of the new rule outweigh the hypothetical costs, an estimated $200 increase in the price of SUVs and cars, according to the agency.

"It's not an awful lot to pay for cleaner air," EPA head Carol Browner said. No, it's never a lot to pay when someone else is picking up the tab. But because the science is secret, there is no way to know if consumers will get their money's worth.

This is not the way science is supposed to work. One of the standards that separates scientific advances from the imaginary kind is whether other researchers can duplicate the original findings in subsequent experiments. If Ms. Browner's data gag had obtained at the time researchers declared they had discovered the scientific holy grail known as "cold fusion," the world might still believe there was such a thing. As it was, researchers attempting to duplicate the stunning findings found that the coldest thing about the research was the data trail they attempted to follow. Today "cold fusion" is just a bad memory for the scientific community it embarrassed.

EPA fired a dud of its own just a few years ago. In 1996 Tulane researchers grimly announced in Science magazine that they had discovered that relatively harmless pesticides turned deadly when mixed together, possibly disrupting human and animal endocrine systems. Coming as it did in the wake of much-publicized media accounts of - brace yourself - the shrinking alligatorhood of male alligators, lower sperm counts in human males and an increase in bad-hair days - the report set off a panic.

EPA, which had always feared that these sinister "chemical cocktails" would someday lead to shrinking sex organs in alligators, pronounced the findings serious and frantically began funding one study after another to see how soon the world would be ending. Scientists dropped other work and began testing pesticide mixtures. Congress added estrogen research requirements in safe-water and food-safety legislation. There was as one lobbyist put it at the time, "a real sense of urgency."

Alas for the agency and other doomsayers, the lead Tulane researcher on the Science study subsequently reported that, um, there had been a mistake in the research, and he quietly withdrew it. It seems that neither he nor other scientists had been able to replicate it. To replicate research, one needs data, and that is exactly what EPA is now trying to prevent, lest the agency find itself humiliated again.

To help the agency see the error of its ways, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby proposed and lawmakers approved legislation requiring that research relying on federal funding make the underlying data available to the public that paid for it. Said Mr. Shelby last year, "The lack of public access to research data feeds general public mistrust of the government and undermines support for major regulatory programs. This measure was long overdue and it represents a first step in ensuring that the public has access to all studies used by the federal government to develop federal policy." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called the measure a "critical step forward" for public access.

Rather than raise the level of government-funded research to survive routine scientific scrutiny, EPA supporters are instead seeking to throw out the Shelby measure and restore the secrecy that shields not just unverifiable research but lousy public policy. As early as this week, they may attempt to attach a repeal provision to otherwise uncontroversial appropriations measures.

Lawmakers should not only oppose repeal. They should insist that Ms. Browner remove her data gag and provide the figures underlying the proposed auto-emission rule. Otherwise they will leave a hole in the credibility of public policy big enough through which to drive an SUV.

Kenneth Smith is deputy editor of The Washington Times editorial page.

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