November 7, 2017
By Jennifer Lu
The outsider pick to head the EPA’s top science panel is a break for a body that has typically promoted leadership from within, past advisory board chairs said.
Unlike the previous four Science Advisory Board chairs, Michael Honeycutt, head of toxicology at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, comes from outside academia and has never been a member of the board. The departing chair said he was not familiar with Honeycutt or his work until the appointment by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt last week.
As chairman to the science advisory board, which acts as the EPA’s panel of top scientific experts and provides the administrator with independent advice based on current, peer-reviewed science, Honeycutt will be able to prioritize topics to be discussed by the board. He will also have a say in picking the lead reviewers to assess scientific reports before they are finalized by the board.
Outgoing SAB chair Peter Thorne, who heads the department of occupation and environmental health at the University of Iowa, told Bloomberg Environment that it was unusual for people to become chair without first serving on the board.
“It’s without precedent, at least in the last four chairs,” said Thorne, who was appointed chairman after serving four years on the board.
The EPA did not comment on Honeycutt’s nomination and the appointment process.
Another former chairwoman and outgoing head of the Board of Scientific Counselors, Deborah Swackhamer, told Bloomberg Environment by email that though she didn’t know anything about Honeycutt beyond what has been reported by the press, his position as a state agency bureaucrat made his appointment unusual.
“Typically the SAB chair (always, in my experience) has been an academic to limit the conflict of interest issue, and typically (and again, always in my experience) a well-respected and active scientist,” she said.
As chairman, Honeycutt will work closely with Science Advisory Board staff to set the meeting agenda.
If a board member wants to bring up a topic that the chairman doesn’t want to discuss—climate change, for example—the chair could simply choose not to put it on the agenda, Thorne said.
Working with the EPA staff, the chairman also selects a trio of lead reviewers from the board that provides a second layer of review on scientific panel reports before they are finalized by the board. The board then votes on what to do with the final report based on the lead reviewers’ comments—whether to approve it or send it back for revisions.
While the chairman has no veto power and one vote like everyone else on the board, it will be Honeycutt’s job to facilitate and build consensus, Thorne said.
And it’s the chairman’s job to read the final report and make sure all the concerns have been addressed.
“I don’t know Dr. Honeycutt, so I don’t know what challenges he’ll face,” Thorne said, but he said the systematic layers of review performed by the board are part of a complicated process. “That’s one of the reasons why chairs have been on the board for a while so they understand how this all works.”
Outside of the science advisory board, reactions to Honeycutt’s appointment have been mixed.
Celina Romero, a partner in Duggins Wren Mann & Romero LLP’s Austin office and a lobbyist for the Texas Pipeline Association, told Bloomberg Environment that Honeycutt was “fair and balanced” and “goes in the direction of what the science shows him,” but would not speculate on what he might do as SAB chair.
But environmental advocates fear he will degrade environmental protections.
“It clearly looks like a handpicked selection of these key people who’ve been out there trying to undermine clean air protections,” Elena Craft, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Bloomberg Environment. “I think he can entirely change the direction of what the science advisory board studies.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality didn’t make Honeycutt or anyone on his staff available for comment.
Honeycutt has worked at the commission since 1996 and directed the toxicology division since 2003. As toxicology director, he reviews the health effects of air permit applications, ambient air monitoring results, and risk assessments for hazardous waste sites. He also updated state guidelines for toxic air emissions, including benzene, during the rise of natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale.
He has also been a vocal critic of the EPA’s modeling for its ozone standards. In the October 2014 edition of the TCEQ monthly magazine, Natural Outlook, Honeycutt wrote that children aren’t more sensitive to ozone than young adults and suggested asthmatics do not fare worse than healthy adults when exposed to the pollutant. He also said that federal ozone standards are overly conservative because most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, so they are exposed to less outdoor ozone than EPA estimates.
“As a scientist, I love following the facts to a conclusion, even if it is contrary to accepted wisdom,” Honeycutt said, in a get-to-know-me sidebar published alongside his article. “I always tell people, ‘show me where I’m wrong.’”
Honeycutt has also downplayed the health effects of mercury on IQ and heart disease in comments submitted to Congress over air quality standards for mercury emissions.
Krystal Henagan, Texas field consultant for Moms Clean Air Force, told Bloomberg Environment he was “absolutely the wrong guy” for the job.
“He’s toxic, he’s toxic to our kids, to our families,” Henagan said. “We really need somebody that will recognize the true science. He’s way outside the mainstream.”