Biden officials had asked the Montana federal judge to send back the Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting studies behind public health safeguards.
A federal judge on Monday vacated the Trump administration rule limiting which scientific studies the Environmental Protection Agency can use in crafting public health protections, overturning one of the last major actions taken by the agency before President Biden took office.
The ruling by Judge Brian Morris, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Great Falls, marked a victory for environmental groups and public health advocates. Just two weeks before Biden’s inauguration, EPA finalized a rule requiring researchers to disclose the raw data involved in their public health studies before the agency could rely upon their conclusions.
The rule, which was made effective immediately, would assign less weight to studies built on medical histories and other confidential data from human subjects where the underlying information was not revealed. That sort of research — including dose-response studies, which evaluate how much a person’s exposure to a substance increases the risk of harm — have been used for decades to justify EPA regulations.
Trump officials, including then-EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, argued that the new rule would provide the public with greater insight into the scientific basis for new regulations.
But critics argued that the Trump administration aimed to impede or block access to the best available science, weakening the government’s ability to create new protections against pollution, pesticides, and possibly even the coronavirus.
Three groups – the Environmental Defense Fund, the Montana Environmental Information Center and Citizens for Clean Energy – sued and last week Morris ruled the agency acted improperly by issuing the rule under the Federal Housekeeping Statute, which allows for changes that are only procedural and not substantive. The Biden administration requested the judge vacate the rule and send it back to the agency.
The Biden administration is “pleased” with the ruling, said EPA spokeswoman Lindsay Hamilton, adding, “EPA is committed to making evidence-based decisions and developing policies and programs that are guided by the best science.”
Monday’s court decision, coming less than two weeks after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the 2019 rule that eased restrictions on power plants’ carbon emissions, will make it easier for the new administration to unwind Trump-era environmental policies.
Environmental Defense Fund senior attorney Ben Levitan, whose group also challenged the emissions rule, said that the recent rulings “just reinforced the fundamental unlawfulness of Trump.”
“It’s a hopeful sign that our environmental laws have survived the Trump administration,” he added. “There’s a real opportunity to implement the laws Congress passed and protect Americans from health and environmental harms.”
Mandy Gunasekara, who was Wheeler’s chief of staff, said she hoped Biden officials would build off the Trump administration’s work even if they disagreed with its methods.
“The decision is unfortunate but does not change the goal of the science transparency rule, which I would urge the new administration to support: Enhance the public trust in agency actions and improve regulatory outcomes,” she said.
Darren Bakst, senior research fellow in agricultural policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview that the rule did not bar studies outright if they didn’t release their data, but “would provide less weight” to them. Even that provision, he noted, could be waived by the administrator on a case-by-case basis.
“It is a very narrow situation when there are confidentiality concerns,” he said, adding the rule aimed to strengthen the public’s faith in the agency’s work. “You don’t know something’s the best available science until you see what goes into that.”
In one of his final interviews before stepping down, Wheeler faulted environmental groups for rushing to challenge his agency’s work in court. “I have no problem with someone suing me if they take the time to read it and understand what the regulation does,” he said last month. “The environmental groups have a terrible record of knee-jerk reactions.”