By Abby Smith
Newly released records show university researchers coordinated closely with the company funding a study that found trucks with rebuilt engines were as clean as new trucks, an argument the company used to persuade the EPA to lift emissions limits on its products.
The contact between Tennessee Technological University researchers and Fitzgerald Glider Kits—the nation’s largest manufacturer of glider kits, new truck chassis and cab assemblies built for used engines and transmissions—raises ethical flags about the study at the center of the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to roll back the Obama-era regulation. Sponsored research like the study at issue isn’t unusual, but universities typically take a strong stance on academic freedom, research ethics experts said.
The Tennessee Tech study found rebuilt engines used in glider vehicles were just as clean as new truck engines that meet the EPA’s standard, but a full version of the research has never been made public, despite repeated requests from EPA staff, new truck manufacturers, environmental groups, and fellow university faculty.
The EPA’s own data contradicts the study’s conclusions. Glider vehicles tested at the EPA’s vehicles lab emitted generally four to 40 times more nitrogen oxides and 50 to 450 times more particulate matter than new model year 2014 and 2015 trucks, according to a Nov. 20, 2017, EPA report. However, the EPA that same month proposed eliminating emissions limits for glider kits.
Emails and records released to the Southern Environmental Law Center and shared with Bloomberg Environment show university officials overseeing the research praising the EPA’s move to exempt glider kits from Obama-era emissions limits while Fitzgerald Glider Kits lobbied the school to publicly support the move. At least two staff working on the research appeared to be aware that Fitzgerald’s aim with the study was to challenge the EPA’s regulation of glider kits.
“This is a big deal for Fitzgerald Companies/TTU/[Tennessee Tech Center for Intelligent Mobility] etc. … and I thank you for your great support!” Tennessee Tech’s Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Thomas Brewer, one of the administrators overseeing the research, wrote in an Aug. 17, 2017, email to engineering department academic support associate Mark Davis, economics professor Yolunda Nabors, and business school Dean Thomas Payne.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that day he would reconsider the glider kit emissions limits.
The situation “should have raised red flags from the outset. The incentive here is screwed up,” Jon Jonakin, who taught economics at Tennessee Tech for 20 years and has publicly criticized the study, told Bloomberg Environment. “Here they wanted research that yields an outcome that can change public policy, regardless of how good it is.”
Jon Toomey, director of government affairs at Fitzgerald Glider Kits, defended the Tennessee Tech research and the EPA’s repeal effort. Criticism of the study is unfounded, and complaints of research misconduct are meritless and driven by a handful of professors, he said.
“We don’t have an issue with another independent study of our engines’ emissions,” Toomey told Bloomberg Environment.
The EPA’s Nov. 16 proposal (RIN:2060-AT79), which would exempt glider kits from the greenhouse gas limits imposed on other large trucks, cites few technical analyses beyond the Fitzgerald-funded study.
Fitzgerald Glider Kits paid $70,056 for the sponsored research, according to the documents.
Critics of the EPA’s repeal efforts—which include major truck makers like Cummins Inc. and Volvo Group North America, environmental groups, state regulators, and even some Republican lawmakers—have torn into the Tennessee Tech study, arguing the research lacks scientific rigor and tilts toward a particular outcome.
Tennessee Tech President Philip Oldham told the agency Feb. 19 to withhold use of the study in any rulemaking until the university completes a research misconduct inquiry on the study.
“The Tennessee Tech community desires to ensure the academic research integrity of the university, along with our reputation as an honest broker of knowledge and research initiatives that promote sound decisions and informed choices,” Karen Lykins, the university’s chief communications officer, told Bloomberg Environment in an emailed statement. “The university takes the allegations of research misconduct seriously.”
Lykins said the university’s internal inquiry into the study is ongoing.
“Tennessee Tech’s internal matter is not related to any action or actions by Fitzgerald Glider Kits or its employees,” she added.
The EPA has backed away from the Tennessee Tech study, but it still looms over the agency’s efforts to finish the repeal. That is in part because its critics say there is no technical or scientific basis to support it.
The agency has argued its proposed repeal is based solely on legal reasons, claiming the Obama administration exceeded its authority by regulating trucks using glider kits as “new motor vehicles.” But that hasn’t halted calls from critics, the agency’s science advisers, and White House officials for more technical analyses to back up the repeal.
The EPA’s Science Advisory Board voted May 31 to review the proposed repeal, following criticism from some on the panel that the agency relied on summaries of comments from Fitzgerald and other glider kit makers rather than the EPA’s own scientific analysis. And the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is now holding up the final rule, urging the EPA to conduct a regulatory impact analysis detailing the repeal’s costs and benefits.
“It seems clear from the correspondence that the goal of the research was to influence the EPA glider kit rule,” Amanda Garcia, a Nashville-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Bloomberg Environment.
In a Jan. 6, 2017, email to members of the research team, Davis, the engineering department academic support associate working on the team, wrote, “Fitzgerald as you know was trying to establish baseline information to challenge the EPA’s new glider kit regulations with a very tight timeline.”
Fitzgerald’s outside counsel, Erin Potter Sullenger of Oklahoma City’s Crowe & Dunlevy, reached out to Brewer in January 2018 with draft comments she urged the university to submit supporting the EPA’s proposed repeal. The university ultimately declined to weigh in on the proposal.
But Brewer privately welcomed news of the EPA’s repeal proposal, sent to him by members of Fitzgerald’s legal team. The proposal is “a lot of reading, but very interesting (and positive) conclusion!” he wrote Nov. 9, 2017, to two other members of the research team.
Tennessee Tech engineering professor Benjamin Mohr, who withdrew as the study’s principal investigator and filed the initial research misconduct complaint, also expressed significant concerns the research was being used as a political football. A summary of the research—sent June 15, 2017, by Brewer and Oldham to Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) and used in Fitzgerald’s July 10, 2017, petition urging the EPA to reconsider the glider kit limits—distorts the findings by not including scope, methodology, and non-supporting data, Mohr wrote in his Jan. 27 complaint.
“This is not simply a difference of opinion in the interpretation of results; this is a violation of research principles by misrepresenting (standard versus non-standard preliminary testing) and withholding data,” Mohr wrote.
Mohr was unable to respond to Bloomberg Environment’s request for comment by press time.
The university has been releasing documents to the law center only after clearing them with Fitzgerald first, Southern Environmental Law Center’s Garcia said. Thus, any redactions signal information the company may not want made public, she said.
For example, Garcia said the documents redact the original research agreement between the university and Fitzgerald, making the terms of their relationship unknown. Tennessee Tech has also resisted calls from the law center and others to publicly release the full research, including the raw data and methodologies, citing a nondisclosure agreement it signed with Fitzgerald.
The secrecy cloaking the study has raised concerns with research ethics experts, particularly given the involvement of students in the study.
“It’s very unusual [to] have a student involved in proprietary work. The whole purpose of a graduate student’s work is that it be published,” C. K. Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told Bloomberg Environment.
“That’s the part that was the biggest red flag for me,” she added. “If this is being done to the detriment of a student, that’s a grave matter.”
Gunsalus said a typical sponsored research agreement would have intellectual property terms and provide the sponsor an opportunity to see, but not edit, any publication in advance. Comments from the sponsor would also typically be considered by the university researchers, she said.
In this case, the principal investigator’s withdrawal and filing of a research misconduct complaint also raises serious questions about the integrity of the work and how it is being represented and used, Gunsalus added.
“If Fitzgerald had data that refuted the criticism, you would be sure that they would have released the study,” Jonakin, the retired Tennessee Tech professor, said. “They haven’t, and that speaks volumes.”
Jonakin attempted to gain access to the full research but was told by university administration that it needed Fitzgerald’s permission to release it.
Fitzgerald is considering releasing a full version of the study, but it wants to wait until Tennessee Tech has completed its inquiry to make a final decision, Toomey said.
He added said that Mohr’s complaint took issue with how the data were presented, not the test results themselves.
Environmentalists argue the continued shielding of the Tennessee Tech study directly contradicts the EPA’s April 24 proposed rule that would bar agency use of scientific research including data that isn’t or can’t be made public.
“Pruitt has put out this idea that they’re going to require more transparency in their science at EPA,” Garcia said. “But they’re completely willing to rely on industry-funded junk science that hasn’t been made public to advance the deregulatory agenda.”
But Fitzgerald’s Toomey said the company commissioned the research to determine how its engines tested because they had never been studied before, including by the EPA. He criticized the EPA’s Nov. 20, 2017, report, which said glider trucks tested at the Ann Arbor vehicles lab generally emitted far more air pollutants than new trucks.
“No one at EPA Ann Arbor asked Fitzgerald, the largest glider assembler, to provide a glider with a remanufactured engine for testing. That is very curious,” Toomey said, adding that study should face greater scrutiny.
Toomey also noted the EPA’s repeal is rooted in a lack of legal authority to regulate glider trucks as new vehicles.
“That important point is often overlooked in this discussion,” Toomey said.
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