What we know about air pollution and health has roots in the mountain valleys of Utah. Winter smog episodes here are legendary.
“The pollution would be so bad that you could hardly see two or three blocks away,” says C. Arden Pope, an economics professor at Brigham Young University. Back in 1986, no one knew precisely how harmful it was.
“When the [Geneva Steel] mill shut down for 13 months and then reopened, we had a very interesting and, in fact, quite a unique natural experiment.”
Pope began collecting data on kids who’d gone into local hospitals with respiratory complaints. He analyzed who was getting sick before, during and after the shutdown.
In the end, it proved to be a real-world case study on how air pollution makes people sick. And it spurred research worldwide – thousands of studies that also showed that air pollution has health impacts like aggravating heart trouble, triggering asthma attacks and causing premature death.
“Those studies have generated a lot of interest,” he said, “and have been very important studies.”
They led to laws that gradually cleaned up the air — and that cost industry billions of dollars.
And now they’ve triggered a political controversy: a new directive from the nation’s top environmental regulator, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Last month he announced he wants raw data to be made public with the scientific studies that EPA uses to make policies or regulations.
The new policy addresses an old complaint about what many Washington conservatives call “secret science.” They call it a push for transparency. But critics see it as an attack on science itself. And it someday could affect the air, land and water quality across the Mountain West.
Pruitt’s recently announce directive sounds a lot like a years-long campaign by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.
“The days of trust-me science are over,” Smith said during a markup in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which he chairs.
“Looking at the EPA’s past record,” he said, “it is clear that the agency has not followed an open and honest process.”
Smith’s legislation, the “Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act,” passed the House a year ago, 228-194, mostly along party lines.
Every Republican member in the Mountain West voted for the “HONEST Act,” as it’s called. And one of the Senate version’s two co-sponsors is Wyoming Republican John Barrasso.
“Their refusal to cooperate,” Smith said of the EPA, “leads to the question: What are they hiding?”
Scientists admit they are keeping some things private — they have to.
Raw data in studies like these is often private medical information — like the hospital reports on all those kids with respiratory problems in Pope’s studies. It’s information that’s confidential under federal law.
Raw data like this is tightly controlled. Researchers who want to use it for their studies have to get approval. And, if they do get access, they must promise the details are kept private to protect personal information.
Smith aides say the HONEST Act allows the EPA administrator to redact private information. But critics say that provision does not meet the rigorous standards needed for privacy protection and, in addition, there is no budget to support the onerous task of going through each document and making those redactions.
“There are rules to protect our privacy and our health data,” Kerry Kelly is a chemical engineer at the University of Utah who studies air pollution.
And, as a member and chair of the Utah Air Quality Board, she helped implement clean-air rules inspired by the research Pope and other scientists have done.
“There are all kinds of reasons,” she said, “why you might need to have data aggregated in a way that protects privacy or companies’ trade secrets or other types of personal issues.”
Brian Moench, founder of the watchdog group, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, doubts that Lamar Smith and Scott Pruitt are concerned about public health. Instead, he sees a war on science that’s weaponizing the foundation of air-pollution science: the Harvard Six Cities study and the American Cancer Society study. To Moench, the so-called “secret science” campaign is motivated by politics.
“They are unabashed defenders of the fossil fuel industry,” he said in an interview. “They’re not interested in scientific transparency or scientific integrity. What they are interested in is trying to manipulate the regulatory process in a way that protects their allies and their campaign contributors.”
Critics like him worry that Pruitt’s directive could stymie EPA’s ability to regulate pollution. And, if the raw-data mandate stands, they fear many environmental health studies will be excluded from EPA’s decision-making process.
The EPA hasn’t been responding to questions about the directive. Journalists who called the EPA to confirm it, or to ask follow-up questions, have been referred to the “exclusive interview” Pruitt gave last month to the Daily Caller, a conservative website.
“It’s really unusual and unprofessional,” said Jill Adams, an independent health and medical journalist who’s also secretary of the National Association of Science Writers.
It’s one of the professional groups that’s lodged objections over EPA transforming a partisan article into an agency news release.
“Here we have a taxpayer funded agency,” she said, “announcing a policy on transparency in a non-transparent way, not being open and forthcoming to the American public.”
Right now, it’s not clear what the directive might mean for Americans — the Libby, Montana, asbestos victims, people downstream of the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado, nuclear safety at the Idaho National Laboratory or Wyoming’s uranium mines.
At this point, no one knows details, and the EPA isn’t saying.
Transparency note: The Society of Environmental Journalists has also lodged a complaint with the EPA Press office. Reporter Judy Fahys serves on the professional association’s governing board.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify a provision within the HONEST Act.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.