MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving to dissolve its Office of the Science Adviser. That is the direct scientific adviser to acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. The EPA describes the move as an effort to streamline the agency, but critics call it another move by the Trump administration to diminish the role of science in decision making. Dan Boyce has the story.
DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: This past summer, Andrew Wheeler took over at the EPA after the resignation of embattled administrator Scott Pruitt. And Wheeler - he's familiar with the EPA. He started his career with the agency in the early '90s.
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ANDREW WHEELER: I do understand firsthand the stress that goes along with a change in management or a change in a reorganization.
BOYCE: That's Wheeler addressing EPA employees back in July. After his first stint at the EPA, he worked as an adviser to Senator Jim Inhofe, one of the biggest climate change skeptics on Capitol Hill. Then Wheeler worked as a lobbyist where one of his major clients was a coal company. Still, he told the assembled EPA staff he brings a passion for helping the environment.
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WHEELER: We must be able to speak with one voice and clearly explain to the American people the relevant environmental and health risks that they face.
BOYCE: But to Michael Halpern, the plan to remove the post of top science adviser is a step away from that pledge. He's with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
MICHAEL HALPERN: I mean, yeah. I mean, this is a colossally bad idea.
BOYCE: Now, the EPA did not respond to requests for an interview. In a statement, the agency describes it more as a bureaucratic reorganization combining this Office of Science Adviser with the Office of Science Policy. But Halpern says what that does is it moves the agency's top science advocates several rungs down the chain of command, and the EPA administrator should have immediate access to those advisers.
HALPERN: Science advice is important both for long-term policy decisions and for reacting during a crisis.
BOYCE: A crisis like Hurricane Florence, recently causing the release of toxic coal ash in North Carolina.
STAN MEIBURG: We interacted with the science advisory position all the time.
BOYCE: That's Stan Meiburg, acting deputy EPA administrator during the final years of the Obama administration. He believes in the importance of the science adviser but says, in some ways, this reorganization appears to be an understandable response for an EPA working with reduced staff under President Trump.
MEIBURG: And, in this particular case, I think it has gotten more attention because of some of the concerns about the administration's use of science.
BOYCE: Both the Trump administration broadly and the EPA have been notably dismissive of scientific advice. Under Administrator Pruitt, the EPA restricted the types of scientific studies it recognizes. And Pruitt also appointed several scientists who work for industries the EPA regulates. Meiburg worries about the signal this latest reorganization sends because there are a lot of pressures acting on an EPA administrator when it comes to crafting policy.
MEIBURG: Lawsuits, demands and deadlines in the statutes, pressures from state, from industry, from nongovernmental organizations.
BOYCE: Meiburg says it's important science remains one of those pressures, too.
Dan Boyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.