Senators Sparred With EPA Nominee Months After Hearing

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By Anthony Adragna

Aug. 10 — Two senior members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee continued to spar with Thomas Burke, nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency's top scientific role, almost a year after his nomination hearing, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show.

Republican Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.), the panel's chairman, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) asked Burke in a March 2016 letter to clarify answers on climate change modelling and the public availability of data underpinning regulatory actions from his June 11, 2015, nomination hearing.

“It is important for us to understand your position on the relevance of future projected climate impacts in assessing the accuracy of climate impacts that were previously projected and expected to occur in the past,” they wrote. “Please comment on the need for EPA to make publicly available all information and data underlying and supporting the agency's science-based findings.”

Burke, first nominated by President Barack Obama to be assistant administrator for research and development in November 2013, responded on April 12, but the committee hasn't yet voted on his nomination after cancelling a scheduled May vote.

“The committee became aware of concerns about Mr. Burke’s involvement in pesticide risk assessments and have sent additional [questions for the record] to try to clear up those concerns,” Donelle Harder, a committee spokeswoman, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 10.

Eight of the 14 positions at the EPA requiring confirmation are vacant or staffed by acting officials. No nomination has formally cleared the Senate since August 2013.

Burke's Answers

The Republicans asked Burke to comment on whether past predictions about the costs of climate change were accurate.

“[Climate] projections include a level of confidence associated with them to account for the inherent uncertainties in climate impact models, projections and analyses,” Burke wrote in response. “I believe it is important that as new data becomes available regarding impacts and accuracy of projections, we continue to refine our future projections of climate impacts.”

The senators also asked whether the EPA should be required to post all data used in regulatory actions so “that a broad cross-section of credentialed peer reviewers and other capable investigators can independently verify the agency's scientific integrity.” Legislation requiring such an approach—the two-page Secret Science Reform Act (H.R. 1030)—passed the House in March 2015.

Burke replied that the EPA remained committed to increasing transparency in federal scientific research but said releasing all data used in rulemakings posed “tremendous challenges.”

“Making all raw data publicly available presents tremendous challenges, including the important requirements to protect human subjects and confidential business information,” he wrote. “I remain committed to pushing forward with ever increasing transparency, data accessibility and peer review to strengthen the scientific basis for our public health and policy decisions.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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