Texas sci­en­tist plays against type at the EPA

Ad­vi­sory board chief keeps open mind on is­sues

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By James Osborne

WASH­ING­TON — When Michael Hon­ey­cutt was named the chair­man of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s Science Ad­vi­sory board last fall, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists ex­pected the worst.

As di­rec­tor of tox­i­col­ogy at the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity, he spent more than two decades fight­ing EPA ef­forts to put stricter con­trols on every­thing from ozone to mer­cury to hex­ava­lent chromium — the can­cer-caus­ing agent made fa­mous in the Julia Roberts film, “Erin Brock­ovich.” With a na­tional plat­form, he was ex­pected him to speed along the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to roll back a decade’s worth of reg­u­la­tions aimed at oil, gas and other fos­sil fuel in­dus­tries.

Hon­ey­cutt, how­ever, is not play­ing along, lead­ing the board in its re­cent de­ci­sion to re­view the science be­hind a host of con­tro­ver­sial EPA poli­cies, such as re­peal­ing the Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit green­house gas emis­sions. That, along with his de­mand

that EPA turn over data be­hind its de­ci­sion-mak­ing, has left the most sus­pi­cious en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, if not prais­ing Hon­ey­cutt, at least re­assess­ing the Texas tox­i­col­o­gist.

“The chair­man ap­pears to be play­ing the role of a tra­di­tional chair­man more than an out­spo­ken critic” of en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion, said John Walke, clean air di­rec­tor at the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, a na­tional ad­vo­cacy group.

No one ex­pects Hon­ey­cutt’s con­ver­sion to tree­hug­ger, but dur­ing his short ten­ure lead­ing the ad­vi­sory panel, a more com­plex pic­ture has emerged of a man whose views on pol­lu­tion and pub­lic health have been crit­i­cized as out­side the main­stream — from dis­put­ing re­search that found in­creased ex­po­sure to ozone leads to more deaths to op­pos­ing tougher mer­cury stan­dards by ar­gu­ing that Ja­panese eat a lot of mer­cury-rich fish and have high IQs.

But those who know him and fol­low his work de­scribe a pub­lic health of­fi­cial who is skep­ti­cal of the reign­ing sci­en­tific con­sen­sus, but also com­mit­ted to fol­low­ing es­tab­lished sci­en­tific pro­to­cols and seek­ing out dis­sent­ing views. Ivan Rusyn, the chair of in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary tox­i­col­ogy pro­gram at Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity, where Hon­ey­cutt has served as an ad­junct pro­fes­sor, said Hon­ey­cutt is well-re­spected in the field, his pro-in­dus­try views not in the ma­jor­ity, but also not on the fringe.

In many ways, Hon­ey­cutt is em­blem­atic of the field of tox­i­col­ogy it­self, Rusyn said. While de­ter­min­ing whether a pol­lu­tant poses risks to hu­man health might ap­pear straight­for­ward, it is far from an ex­act science.

Not as easy as it looks

Hu­man test­ing is mostly out of bounds, so sci­en­tists rely on an­i­mal test­ing to study the im­pact on health of say, in­dus­trial chem­i­cals or pes­ti­cides Those stud­ies, how­ever, are of­ten lim­ited in scope and not al­ways the best gauge, leav­ing plenty of room for in­ter­pre­ta­tion. The is­sue be­come more com­plex for reg­u­la­tors, who must bal­ance eco­nomic with en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects in de­ter­min­ing what lev­els of pol­lu­tants are rea­son­able.

“There’s uncer­tain­ties all over this process,” Rusyn said. “It is my opin­ion Mike is not a stooge and a pup­pet for in­dus­try. He is a leader and a very ef­fec­tive one at the state level.”

Hon­ey­cutt was named chair­man of the ad­vi­sory panel last year by the con­tro­ver­sial EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt, who re­signed Thurs­day un­der the cloud of sev­eral ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Pruitt, a cli­mate change skep­tic who ag­gres­sively at­tacked en­vi­ron­men­tal rules adopted dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, was suc­ceeded by Act­ing EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor An­drew Wheeler, a for­mer coal lob­by­ist and vet­eran Repub­li­can staffer on Capi­tol Hill.

Wheeler is ex­pected to con­tinue the reg­u­la­tory roll­back that Hon­ey­cutt and the ad­vi­sory board will re­view to de­ter­mine whether science sup­ports the poli­cies.

In June, the more than 40 sci­en­tists serv­ing on the board met a half mile north of the White House at the Wash­ing­ton Plaza ho­tel to de­cide whether to re­view EPA’s re­cent reg­u­la­tory ac­tions as well as a pro­posal to stop the EPA from con­sid­er­ing pub­lic health stud­ies that use con­fi­den­tial data — a com­mon prac­tice among sci­en­tists de­signed to pro­tect the pri­vacy of pa­tients and com­pa­nies. Crit­ics, how­ever, say the prac­tice al­lows sci­en­tists to op­er­ate with­out scru­tiny.

It was the first meet­ing since Pruitt reshuf­fled the board’s mem­ber­ship to in­crease rep­re­sen­ta­tion by in­dus­try. Some vet­eran board mem­bers won­dered how the new chair­man would han­dle the meet­ing, whether he would try to hold up their at­tempt to put the EPA’s pol­icy mak­ing un­der a mi­cro­scope.

But they needn’t have wor­ried. Hon­ey­cutt started quickly into the agenda and kept on point, with­out “weigh­ing in with his own opin­ions,” said Chris Frey, an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at North Carolina State Uni­ver­sity and board mem­ber.

In ad­di­tion to ex­am­in­ing the Clean Power Plan re­peal, the board elected to re­view other con­tro­ver­sial EPA de­ci­sions, in­clud­ing the re­peal of tougher meth­ane reg­u­la­tions on oil and gas wells and the roll back of ve­hi­cle emis­sions stan­dards.

“There was an open con­ver­sa­tion about th­ese is­sues, and it was very pos­i­tive,” said Steve Ham­burg, an­other board mem­ber and chief sci­en­tist at the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Fund, which has hounded Pruitt mer­ci­lessly since he took of­fice last year.

Hon­ey­cutt de­clined to be in­ter­viewed, only an­swer­ing ques­tions by email. Asked about re­view­ing EPA’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing, he said he agreed with the board, which he de­scribed as com­posed of, “highly qual­i­fied and ex­tremely in­tel­li­gent sci­en­tists whom I deeply re­spect.”

“I at­tempted to make sure that ev­ery board mem­ber had their opin­ions heard and ques­tions an­swered,” he said.

Mad Hat­ters

Cre­ated by Congress in 1978 to help clean the na­tion’s dirty air and wa­ter­ways, the science ad­vi­sory board is charged with check­ing whether EPA ac­tions align with es­tab­lished science. If the EPA, for in­stance, tight­ens ozone reg­u­la­tions, it needs to cite sci­en­tific stud­ies show­ing that do­ing so will save lives. And while the board’s guid­ance is strictly ad­vi­sory, not fol­low­ing it can leave ad­min­is­tra­tors on shaky ground po­lit­i­cally and in the courts if reg­u­la­tory changes be­come the sub­jects of law­suits.

Hon­ey­cutt, 51, joined the TCEQ in the mid-1990s af­ter earn­ing a doc­tor­ate in tox­i­col­ogy and phar­ma­col­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Louisiana-Mon­roe. He de­scribed his ap­proach as try­ing to find a bal­ance be­tween “pro­tect­ing pub­lic health and the en­vi­ron­ment and al­low­ing in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity.”

“The TCEQ suc­cess­fully achieves both goals by writ­ing per­mits that al­low re­lease of chem­i­cals into the en­vi­ron­ment at con­cen­tra­tions that do not cause harm,” he said

That ap­proach helped in in­dus­try-friendly Texas, where Hon­ey­cutt was named head of TCEQ’s tox­i­col­ogy di­vi­son in 2003. But while en­dear­ing him­self to Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, he has also made him­self a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure among en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists.

When EPA was mov­ing ahead on tougher mer­cury stan­dards in 2011, Hon­ey­cutt ap­peared be­fore Congress to ar­gue against stricter lim­its on the toxin, which is pumped into the air as a byprod­uct of coal power gen­er­a­tion and has been linked to neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders since the days of the “Mad Hat­ters,” who used mer­cury in hat­mak­ing in 19th cen­tury Lon­don. In his tes­ti­mony, he dis­counted the threat, not­ing that Ja­panese eat 10 times more fish than Amer­i­cans do,” but score highly on IQ tests. Nearly all fish con­tain traces of mer­cury.

In 2015, as EPA pre­pared to en­act stan­dards low­er­ing the amount of ozone that Amer­i­cans are forced to breathe, Hon­ey­cutt ar­gued dur­ing a ra­dio in­ter­view that “peo­ple are go­ing to die” if ozone pol­lu­tion — as­so­ci­ated with asthma and other lung dis­eases — was re­duced. He based the claim on an ob­scure EPA find­ing that as over­all ozone pol­lu­tion de­clines, it also in­creases in some smaller, iso­lated ar­eas for short pe­ri­ods of time.

That won Honey­well sup­port from the power sec­tor and the Gulf Coast petro­chem­i­cal com­plex, which emit pol­lu­tants that con­trib­ute to higher ozone lev­els.

“His opin­ions, they're out of step with the main­stream sci­en­tific com­mu­nity,” said Luke Met­zger, di­rec­tor of the ac­tivist group En­vi­ron­ment Texas. “Time and time again he ends up sup­port­ing the pol­lut­ing in­dus­tries. ”

Hon­ey­cutt then spent $1.65 mil­lion to hire a Mas­sachusetts con­sult­ing firm, Gra­di­ent Corp., whose clients in­clude in­dus­try groups such as the Amer­i­can Pe­tro­leum In­sti­tute, to try to re­fute pub­lic health stud­ies that found in­creased ozone lev­els in­crease deaths among the broader pub­lic. That drew at­tacks not only from en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists, but also fel­low sci­en­tists. In 2015, Joel Schwartz, a pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal epi­demi­ol­ogy at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, told the Texas Tri­bune that Graident used ques­tion­able science to “trash en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies.”

Tug of war

Science has al­ways been more di­vided and prone to con­flict than po­lit­i­cal lead­ers like to ac­knowl­edge. But in join­ing the EPA’s ad­vi­sory board un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, Hon­ey­cutt finds him­self in the com­pany of sci­en­tists far re­moved from the aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions from which such ap­point­ments usu­ally orig­i­nate.

Pruitt, a cli­mate change skep­tic, had steadily re­placed academics from in­sti­tu­tions such as the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan and Ohio State Uni­ver­sity with in­dus­try sci­en­tists from the likes of the Hous­ton re­finer Phillips 66 and the French oil ma­jor To­tal.

Among them is Stan­ley Young, a for­mer top sci­en­tist at the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal gi­ant Eli Lilly. Young, se­lected for the ad­vi­sory board last year, be­lieves the is­sue of cli­mate change “to be up for grabs” and has spent years ar­gu­ing that a land­mark Har­vard study link­ing in­creased air pol­lu­tion to higher mor­tal­ity rates is wrong.

“There are peo­ple who think the science that has been pub­lished has been set­tled,” Young said. “As a gen­eral thing, science is never set­tled, it’s al­ways open to new data and re­anal­y­sis.”

Young was com­pli­men­tary about Hon­ey­cutt, not­ing that in Texas, he was crit­i­cal of many EPA de­ci­sions. But he also crit­i­cized the board’s de­ci­sion to re­view EPA poli­cies, ar­gu­ing that de­ci­sions on is­sues like the Clean Power Plan were mat­ters of pol­icy, not of science.

Which side Honey­well ul­ti­mately ends up on re­mains to be seen He will have plenty more op­por­tu­ni­ties to rile up en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and sci­en­tists in Wash­ing­ton as he did in Austin.

And al­ready, some are gear­ing up for a fight.

“I don’t see any in­di­ca­tion he’s changed his points of view,” said Walke, the NRDC at­tor­ney. “I ex­pect them to erupt at fu­ture board meet­ings.”

Ralph Bar­rera /Amer­i­can-States­man

Some crit­ics feared Mike Hon­ey­cutt as a con­ser­va­tive, but he has kept his opin­ions open.

Ralph Bar­rera / Austin Amer­i­can-States­man

As tox­i­col­o­gist for the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity, Mike Hon­ey­cutt has fought against pop­u­lar en­vi­ron­men­tal stands but also has ad­vo­cated for science.

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