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DC District Court Hands Trump’s EPA Major Victory Over Environmentalists

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The D.C. District Court granted the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) petition to dismiss legal action against a policy to prohibit scientists from receiving agency funding while sitting on advisory boards.

EPA issued the policy directive in 2017, under former Administrator Scott Pruitt. A coalition of environmental groups promptly filed suit, alleging the agency lacked the authority to make changes to advisory board policies and violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

Judge Trevor McFadden ruled against environmental groups, led by Physicians for Social Responsibility, and agreed to dismiss all four counts leveled against EPA’s ethics policy. President Trump appointed McFadden to the D.C. District Court in 2017.

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“In sum, Physicians have not plausibly alleged a conflict between the Directive and the conflict of interest statute and [Office of Government Ethics (OGE)] regulations,” McFadden wrote in his opinion, issued Tuesday.

Supporters of EPA’s ethics policy were happy with McFadden’s ruling, including Steve Milloy, publisher of JunkScience.com. For years, Milloy pushed to stop EPA advisory boards from letting members also take money from the agency.

Milloy’s past research has found that scientists and experts sitting on just one Obama administration EPA advisory board collected $192 million in agency grants in recent decades. Milloy, an environmental policy expert, said this could unduly influence advisers tasked with evaluating EPA regulations.

Pruitt announced the policy in October 2018, arguing it was needed to “ensure independence” and “geographical representation” on EPA scientific advisory boards. EPA has 22 science advisory boards, but Pruitt’s policy on applied to three.

Pruitt resigned from EPA in 2018 amid a flurry of ethics investigations. Trump has since nominated Andrew Wheeler, currently EPA’s acting head, to replace Pruitt as the agency’s official head.

Environmentalists said Pruitt’s policy violated federal law, alleging further it was an attempt to rid scientific panels of experts opposed to the Trump administration’s deregulatory goals.

However, McFadden ruled EPA had “broad discretion to shape advisory committee membership,” and can, if it wants, not allow scientists to serve on advisory boards while taking agency funding.

“This is permissible,” McFadden ruled. “Neither the conflict of interest statute nor OGE regulations dictate who agency heads must appoint or retain under the broad discretion afforded by FACA.”

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