One of the defining aspects of the Trump administration is the shameless peddling of conspiracy theories. There’s the myth that Democrats installed a spy on the president’s 2016 campaign, for instance, and the one about the Chinese making up climate change. Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, political appointees—including former administrator Scott Pruitt and his replacement, Andrew Wheeler—are promoting a conspiracy theory of their own. They claim that the EPA improperly uses “secret science” to justify unnecessary regulations—and they want to forbid the agency from doing so.
Claims about “secret science” stem from the fact that many studies linking pollution to illness rely on medical, personal, or occupational records that aren’t public—not for any nefarious reason, but because of patient privacy laws or confidentiality agreements. In 2018, Pruitt proposed excluding these types of studies from future policy-making. Some 600,000 public comments poured in, many of them pointing out that the measure, by excluding a large body of epidemiological research from consideration, would make it difficult for the EPA to fulfill its core mission of protecting public health. But instead of backing down, the EPA is now pushing for a dramatic expansion of its initial proposal. A new draft supplement to the rule, published by The New York Times last week, indicates that the data disclosure requirement could also apply retroactively—meaning that the EPA could use it as justification to gut long-standing clean air and water protections if they were based, in part, on research that incorporated confidential data.