Deleting science from EPA’s Office of Science and Technology

The EPA’s Office of Science and Technology [OST] no longer includes the word science in its mission statement. That’s a big effing deal, says the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative [EDGI], a group of scientists and academics who track changes to about 25,000 federal government webpages. [Okay, EDGI didn’t say effing…]

The New Republic published EDGI’s latest findings on March 7. To document its point, EDGI provided screenshots comparing OST’s previous mission statement to its Trump-era revision.  [I have transcribed the screenshot copy here.]

Under “What We Do,” OST previously said:

OST is responsible for developing sound science-based standards, criteria, health advisories, test methods and guidelines under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. We work with partners and stakeholders to develop the scientific and technological foundations to achieve clean water through national programs that protect people and the aquatic environment.

Now, “What We Do,” says:

OST works with states, tribes and other stakeholders to develop recommended safe water quality levels for toxins, nutrients and pathogens to help ensure our nation’s waters can be used for fishing, swimming and drinking water. OST also develops national economically and technologically achievable performance standards to address water pollution from industry.

What’s the difference? It’s all just a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, right? Wrong, says EDGI’s Gretchen Gehrke, in an article in the New Republic.

“This is probably the most important thing we’ve found so far,” said Gehrke, who works on EDGI’s website tracking team. “The language changes here are not nuanced—they have really important regulatory implications.”

The New Republic explains the differences this way:

The EPA’s Office of Science and Technology has historically been in charge of developing clean water standards for states. Before January 30 of this year, the website said those standards were “science-based,” meaning they were based on what peer-reviewed science recommended as safe levels of pollutants for drinking, swimming, or fishing. Since January 30, though, the reference to “science-based” standards has disappeared. Now, the office, instead, says it develops “economically and technologically achievable standards” to address water pollution.

Gehrke says removing “science” from OST’s missions and replacing it with “technologically achievable” means the EPA is moving toward more technology-based standards, where polluters just have to install certain types of technology.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy organization, agrees. Moving towards what companies claim is feasible for them would mark a “major change in direction” and could signal that the EPA is turning to see their job “as being a support for business as opposed to safeguarding public health.”

The change reflects a major movement from working with scientists to guarantee safe water for citizens of the US, writes Andrew Griffin in The Independent:

…decisions could just be made based on the technology that is available. Even more, the wording could be used to reduce the regulations that currently apply.

Environmentalists often argue that clean water should be assessed by scientists on a performance basis, who check for the amount of certain pollutants that are found in water. But instead, the technological approach could just require companies to install certain pieces of equipment – whether or not that equipment makes the water clean enough to drink or swim in.

The wording change at OST is, of course, just the tip of the [now-and-for-the-forseeable-future dirtier] iceberg. Using OST as a template, we can look forward [actually, backward] to science-based decision-making going missing at other government agencies we’ve relied on for half a century or more: the Federal Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control, and others.

We are in trouble.