Bloomberg News

Two-Decade-Old Harvard Health Data Confounds EPA Nomination (1)

May 16, 2013

EPA Nominee Gina McCarthy

Gina McCarthy, the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is scheduled to have a vote on her nomination in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 16. Photographer: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Buried in the questions Senate Republicans want answered by the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency is a stumper: data linking microscopic particles in the air to premature death.

The problem is the EPA doesn’t have the data, which was compiled by Harvard University researchers more than two decades ago, and confidentiality agreements with hundreds of thousands of participants prevent researchers from making it public. The nominee, Gina McCarthy, had nothing to do with the research.

Critics say the demand -- among 1,100 questions put to McCarthy -- exemplifies the way confirmation battles are now waged on Capitol Hill, with queries that appear to range beyond the nominee’s fitness for the post. Academics who have studied the Senate confirmation process say that Republican critics have put an unprecedented amount of roadblocks into the way of President Barack Obama’s nominees.

“There is less deference across the board, but environmental protection is one place where we would expect conflict,” Michael Gerhardt, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina and author of a book on federal appointments, said in an interview. The EPA “is something that tends to be fought over.”

Carbon Cost

McCarthy has faced the most questions ever put to an EPA nominee, with Vitter alone posing 400. That’s more than all the queries put to President George W. Bush’s nominee Michael Leavitt, according to Delaware Democrat Tom Carper.

Among questions McCarthy has answered: How many people in the U.S. had mercury poisoning last year? What is the social cost of a ton of carbon? Will there be 21 billion gallons of advanced cellulosic ethanol by 2030? And, how is the EPA taking site-specific nature of Selenium issues into account when developing a national standard for it?

McCarthy today won the support of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which sent her nomination to the full Senate. Republicans, who boycotted last week’s meeting on McCarthy citing inadequate responses to their questions, voted against her in 10-8 party-line vote.

Filibuster Threat

If EPA provides the complete answers sought, McCarthy may get a vote in the full Senate without a filibuster, said Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter.

“I hope we won’t have a fight on the floor,” Vitter said at the committee hearing today. “We’re not asking the EPA to change its views.”

Vitter says just five key requests have been the keys for him since the beginning, and all are focused on making the EPA’s functioning and decisions clear to the public. EPA provided further responses last night, but those still haven’t been answered to his satisfaction.

“We want to request additional progress, and their follow through will determine how this nomination process goes forwards,” he said.

In addition to the Harvard study data, Vitter wants the agency to agree to Freedom of Information procedures and restrict the use of personal e-mails for official business. Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson used an alias, Richard Windsor, to send e-mail among associates. Vitter has criticized the use of that address as a way to circumvent open-records procedures, and wants disclosure of all of McCarthy’s use of a personal e-mail for government business while serving as an assistant EPA administrator.

Environmentalist Criticism

Vitter also wants assurances outside groups will have the chance to weigh in on the settlement of lawsuits and adopt a new economic model for evaluating the costs and benefits of pollution rules. Complying with these two demands may be impossible for the agency, and, if accepted, could undercut the broad array of air-pollution regulations pursued by the Obama administration, environmentalists say.

“They want to force EPA into paralysis by analysis,” John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview. “They want to throw sand and dust and question the well-established link between soot and health. Industry has been fighting and losing this battle for two decades.”

The individual data behind the Harvard studies is particularly nettlesome, as one original set was compiled and is owned by Harvard. The second set of 1.2 million volunteers was compiled by the American Cancer Society using its resources, and was only accessed and analyzed by C. Arden Pope, a professor at Brigham Young University who was a Harvard fellow in 1993 and co-author of the original studies.

Deja Vu

For the researchers, the Republicans’ call has the flavor of deja vu all over again. Industry groups have been questioning their results since the EPA first used them to set nationwide limits on particulates, or soot, in 1997, critiques that prompted a three-year re-analysis of that data by an independent team of scientists.

“When it is all said and done, the results we published have hardly changed” after that re-analysis and follow-up studies, Pope said. “That’s been frustrating to those who want to make it go away.”

The so-called Harvard Six Cities study, funded in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health, found “statistically significant and robust associations between air pollution and mortality.” The results, which a series of Harvard researchers have built on in studies published as recently as December, have been used by the EPA to justify regulations curbing pollution from diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers, rules industry and some academic critics say go too far and cost too much.

Harvard School

Douglas Dockery, the lead author of the original study and a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the university has handed over as much data as it can, given privacy restrictions. The American Cancer Society “is not aware” of a request by the EPA for its data, according to spokesman Steve Weiss.

Vitter wants to provide the health data to outside researchers and let them test the results and the claims of benefits made by the EPA, Bolar, his spokesman, said. “Without the data there currently exists no way for anyone to verify what EPA is claiming,” he said in an e-mail.

“If people could get their hands on the Harvard Six Cities study, they might find there is some error in it,” Stanley Young, assistant director of the independent National Institute of Statistical Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, said in an interview. “If it’s science, it ought to be available.”

Exploited Work

Still, even critics of EPA’s reliance on the Harvard research, say this focus on getting the underlying data may be misplaced.

Dockery and his co-authors “are superb scientists, but I think their work is being exploited by people who have interests beyond public health” in pushing for further curbs on diesel emissions or soot after great reductions over the past two decades, Robert Phalen, a toxicologist at the University of California at Irvine, said in an interview.

“The scientists are concerned about whether or not their data will be fairly analyzed,” he said. “The fear is legitimate.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at mdrajem@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net


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