White House Seeks To Assert Total Control Over All Environmental & Health Studies & Warnings

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Under a new Bush administration proposal, all federal environmental and health studies would need to be approved by the Office of Budget Management prior to release. Is this Bush’s newest move to silence critics of big business? We host a debate between a former Department of Energy official and the Chamber of Commerce. [includes transcript]

Tomorrow is the last day that federal agencies responsible for public health, safety and the environment have to respond to a controversial new proposal by the White House to strip them of their authority to declare emergencies.

The administration’s plan calls for the White House Office of Management and Budget to decide what and when the public would be told about an outbreak of mad cow disease, an anthrax release, a nuclear plant accident or any other crisis. Perhaps more troubling to the scientific community, the White House also wants to manage scientific and technical evaluations–known as peer reviews–of all major government rules, plans, proposed regulations and pronouncements. Under the present system, each federal agency controls its emergency notifications and peer review of its projects.

On Friday, a nonpartisan group of 20 former top agency officials sent a letter to the OMB asking the White House agency to withdraw its proposal, saying it “could damage the federal system for protecting public health and the environment.” The letter was obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Among it’s signers were two former Environmental Protection Agency administrators, a former secretary of labor, two former heads of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a former assistant labor secretary and 13 other former senior officials of both political parties. The letter was also signed by David Michaels, a former assistant secretary for environment, safety and health at the Department of Energy.

  • David Michaels, former assistant secretary for environment, safety and health at the Department of Energy. He is now a research professor at the George Washington University’s School of Public Health.
  • William Kovacs, Vice President for Environment Technology and Regulatory Affairs. He is the primary officer responsible for developing U.S. Chamber policy on environment, energy, natural resources, agriculture and food safety, regulatory, and technology issues.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: David Michaels, former assistant Secretary for the Environment Safety and Health, at the Department of Energy joins us on the telephone right now. David Michaels, your response to this latest White House proposal?

DAVID MICHAELS: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.


DAVID MICHAELS: Not just me, but the entire science community is up in arms. Code red. The proposal that the White House has made is not peer review. It resembles peer review, but it’s a whole different system, but it’s being set up to handcuff the regulatory apparatus. It’s going to stop agencies from issuing regulations and protections of the public’s health and the environment. It’s even going to stop web pages from going up. This is written so broadly that agencies will have really no ability to put out information without first having that information being vetted and criticized by the industries it’s trying to regulate.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone by William Kovacs, Vice President for Environment Technology and Regulatory Affairs, the primary officer responsible for developing U.S. Chamber policy on the environment, natural resources, agriculture, food safety, regulatory and technology issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Why do you support this?

WILLIAM KOVACS: Well, good morning. We support it for a few reasons. One is, the cost of the regulatory system today is $850 billion annually. And when you are talking about imposing that many costs, and that’s four times more dollars than are imposed — than are paid by all of the tax of all of the corporations in the entire United States. When they’re putting out a major rule that might cost billions of dollars, what we’re saying is it needs to be peer reviewed by other scientists and the peer review needs to be transparent. I don’t know how anyone could say we are harming science if all we are saying is whatever the government does it needs to do it in public and to get outside of doing everything in a back room.

DAVID MICHAELS: I have a number of responses to that.

AMY GOODMAN: David Michaels.

DAVID MICHAELS: First, there’s no evidence this is needed. The White House has not identified a single regulation that would have been improved by peer review. I can think of dozens of public health environmental protections that this process would have delayed with a significant impact on the public’s health.

The next thing, though, is the science community calls peer review something that’s very different than what the White House is calling it. Don’t take my word for it. The editor of “Science” magazine, the leading scientific journal in the world, said it was strange to call this thing peer review, and it’s dangerous to put all of this power into the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, as it could result in public health emergencies being missed or delayed — response delayed. It’s a very problematic proposal.

WILLIAM KOVACS: Let me respond to all of that. First of all, in emergency situations, if there is that kind of critical situation, there is an exemption in the proposed rule. So, that’s really a specious argument. The second thing is, there are two types of peer reviews. It’s not that all peer review is equal. For most of the regulations, we are talking about 4,000 new regulations a year. For 3,850 of those regulations, the peer review process that the agencies have today probably would be sufficient, and that’s what the agencies are going to use.

But there’s a section of the regulations called the “specially significant”. These are the regulations that have a major impact on the economy. There are about 150 of them a year. For those 150 that literally have hundreds of billions of dollars of costs associated with them, for that set of regulations, there’s going to have to be peer review. And most of those regulations occur over years. For example, a lot of the clean air regulations relating to nitrous oxide or sulfur dioxide, the criteria pollutants. Those things take typically four to six years to develop. We are not talking about emergency situations. We are talking about long, thoughtful, drawn-out regulations. Right now, all of those regulations are made in the back room by government agencies, by unelected officials, and — who keep all of their scientific studies private.

DAVID MICHAELS: That’s simply not true. The regulations that Mr. Kovacs is talking about all go through a public process where people can put in comments and they’re reviewed. What this regulation — this proposal talks about is all of the science that underlies these regulations. Hundreds and hundreds of studies. I put out a regulation in beryllium When I was assistant Secretary of Energy that’s ten times stronger than the ocean regulations. We had many dozens of studies that would have had to undergo cumbersome peer review that clearly weren’t needed if we put this proposal in place. If we are worried about costs, the cost in money and lives of this proposal is enormous.

WILLIAM KOVACS: That’s one point. You know, you’re right. But what — when you put out — the reason you don’t want to put out your studies is because you want to keep everything in the background, everything secret, so that when you put it out for public comment, you say, well, here is what — here is what the government is willing to let you see. But you never want to give anyone the backup data, so that they can determine whether the science is good or bad and the peer review will take the science and it will put it in the public. And why shouldn’t the public, before you are going to impose a regulation costing billions of dollars, have the right to see whether the science is any good.

DAVID MICHAELS: All of that — all that science is nonsense. Every one of the studies is put out for public consumption. The problem is, according to the White House, is all of those studies haven’t been reviewed by a peer review panel. Not by scientists selected independently, but scientists, who have — essentially with a stacked deck — the way this is written, if you are a university scientist who gets federal money, you couldn’t be on the peer review panel, because you might be biased in favor of the agency. If you are an industry scientist you could be chosen to be on the panel.

WILLIAM KOVACS: That’s not where the regulations go. Where they go is in terms of complete disclosure. In the academic community and in the journals, what happens is all of the peer review is done by anonymous scientists. They sit there and they don’t tell you who they are. They have whatever kind of input they want, and then all of a sudden, you say, this is —- it’s been peer reviewed, but nobody knows what the comments are. What these regulations require for major regulations are what is the identity of the scientists, who they are. Do they have a bias. Do they have a financial interest. Nobody -—

DAVID MICHAELS: To get money from the government, you cannot be on it unless there’s a waiver. That rules out most topics.

WILLIAM KOVACS: You cannot peer review your own work.

DAVID MICHAELS: It’s not the work.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask William Kovacs.

DAVID MICHAELS: The C.D.C. does something on lead poisons. If you are a scientist and you get N.I.H. money, which is most scientists in the medical world, you cannot be on the peer review.

WILLIAM KOVACS: That’s not what it’s saying. What it’s saying is there is full disclosure.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask a question. We are talking to William Kovacs, Vice President for Environment Technology and Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and David Michaels, former assistant Secretary for the Environment Safety and Health, at the Department of Energy. We are debating a proposal the White House has put forward that would decide what and when the public would be told about an outbreak of say — mad cow disease, anthrax release, nuclear plant accident or any other crisis.

Let me propose what happened after 9-11. It was unusual, and people were very angry, especially New Yorkers, after the calamity of 9-11, when it came out that the White House had put direct pressure on the E.P.A. not to release information about how toxic the environment was right around this area — Actually, where we are broadcasting. Right around ground zero.

But that was considered unusual, and when the suppression came out, my colleague, Juan Gonzalez, co-host here and a reporter at the “New York Daily News” exposed this, the levels of the toxins in the environment, of the E.P.A. not putting out the report. It came out that the White House had put pressure. Would this become business as usual under this new regulation? Let me ask David Michaels.

DAVID MICHAELS: It would certainly raise the White House’s ability to control fundamental — information that agencies need to put out. The other thing it would do is allow the White House to say, wait a minute, don’t put anything out. Let’s have a peer review, let’s slow it down and essentially serve the same purpose.

WILLIAM KOVACS: I’m not sure. It depends what it is. These —- this regulation applies to regulation -—

DAVID MICHAELS: It includes the statements and reports.

WILLIAM KOVACS: Our position here at the U.S. Chamber is simple. We believe that the entire approach for information and data quality is the right approach. All of the information needs to be accurate. All of it needs to be released to the public. All of it needs to be transparent. It’s the scientific community that’s making the argument. You know, David, you are making two arguments.

One, you are saying, gee, it’s going to hurt science and now you’re saying, gee, they can control the information. We’re saying that all of the information needs to be released. All of it, immediately.

When the study is produced, it needs to be released — if they’re going to use it for anything. If they’re going to use it for any governmental purpose, the underlying scientific information need be to be released and it needs to be peer reviewed. End of discussion. There needs to be complete and total transparency.

DAVID MICHAELS: But the Chamber of Commerce takes the position that the peer review in a scientific journal is not good enough. They want the stacked deck review out of the White House.

WILLIAM KOVACS: What we said on the scientific journal, let’s be accurate, is if you are going to use the data derived from a scientific journal, you have to release the names of the peer reviewers and it has to be done in the same way anything else would be done, and that is a in a very transparent way.

AMY GOODMAN: David Michaels and William Kovacs, I want to give you the example read in our headlines today. The “Washington Post” is reporting, top administration officials ordered the rewriting of the federal study on healthcare that had originally concluded minorities received less care and less high quality care than whites.

The report originally said that the disparities in care along racial lines presented, quote, “national problems”. But those words never appeared in the final version released by the Department of Health and Human Services. Critics said that the department rewrote the study to put a positive spin on this public health crisis. Your response, William Kovacs.

WILLIAM KOVACS: My response is I don’t know how it’s being used, and I don’t know what the underlying studies are. But what we would argue is that the underlying studies — if they’re going to rely on them, need to be released.


AMY GOODMAN: David Michaels.

DAVID MICHAELS: What this is about is this is a strategy the tobacco industry came up with a long time ago. If you don’t like the policy, attack the science. It’s going on over and over again in so many examples.

Essentially, you can centralize control somewhere like the White House. They can go in and say we don’t like this study, so pull it out, and we don’t like this study, pull it out — and what you have left is a politically acceptable report that doesn’t improve the public’s health or the environment.

WILLIAM KOVACS: But David, you started out by saying how we need to have scientists have control over the process so the stuff doesn’t be released. Now you’re arguing that the White House has done just what you want it to do.

Why don’t you just say that the scientific community needs to join the business community and we need to have transparency when we’re dealing with science that impacts the public.

DAVID MICHAELS: I don’t trust the business community to peer review good science. There are too many examples where the business community essentially, like tobacco, says that the science is not there. This is what’s going on with global warming.

WILLIAM KOVACS: The business community —

AMY GOODMAN: I have to interrupt because we have to wrap up. The business community, you said, creates all of the jobs in the entire United States. And so —

WILLIAM KOVACS: And so he shouldn’t — David shouldn’t be so antagonistic to us. The business community has created the greatest environment in the world. We have the best quality of life in the United States. And to sit there and say that the scientists know better and we should be able to make decisions in dark rooms, this is foolish. We need transparency in the process.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of transparency, as we wrap up, this is a proposal put forward by the White House. What kind of input does the public have at this point?

WILLIAM KOVACS: All of — anyone in the public can comment on the proposal.

AMY GOODMAN: Until when?

DAVID MICHAELS: The best way to do this is go to www.ombwatch.org. They set up this website specifically to get comments in to Congress and to the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there deadline?

WILLIAM KOVACS: OMB Watch is an interest group that supports David’s position.

DAVID MICHAELS: You go directly to OMB, www.omb.gov and that is the way to do it, put it right in the channel so it’s there with the rest of the comments.

AMY GOODMAN: And is there a deadline?

DAVID MICHAELS: The deadline is passed, but I’m sure they’re accepting comments.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, David Michaels, former assistant Secretary for the Environment at the Department of Energy and William Kovacs, Vice President for Environment Technology and Regulatory Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. You are listening to Democracy Now!.

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