WASHINGTON — 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 Joe 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. Two weeks before Biden’s inauguration, the 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, assigned 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.
Officials appointed by President Donald Trump, including then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, said the new rule would provide the public with greater insight on the scientific basis for new regulations.
But critics said 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 that 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 that the agency “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 Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia 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 attorney Ben Levitan, whose group also challenged the emissions rule, said 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 on 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 did not 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 that 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.”