Intent on wringing more smog from the nation's skies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is just months away from imposing new ozone standards meant to lessen pollution from the nation's cars, factories and power plants widely believed to worsen asthma, lung and heart disease.
The impending restrictions have already drawn the wrath of Republican leaders, who have trotted out studies portending economic doom. Nearly a dozen Republican governors, including Texas’ Greg Abbott, have cautioned the EPA against what they called a “power grab,” and some members in Congress are renewing efforts to revisit the decades-old Clean Air Act.
But perhaps nowhere is opposition to the new ozone standards more determined than at the agency charged with enforcing environmental laws in Texas. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — arguing that any health benefits won't be worth the cost — is paying a private company $1.65 million to challenge the science being used to set them.
“EPA’s not always about the best science,” said Michael Honeycutt, the commission's top toxicologist, who is spearheading the efforts.
The environmental consulting company Honeycutt's agency hired, Massachusetts-based Gradient Corporation, typically conducts research funded by industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute. One Harvard University epidemiologist calls its work for Texas "bullshit" science that contradicts conclusions by the vast majority of experts.
“This is a company that basically works for industry, and their job is to trash environmental studies,” said Joel Schwartz, a professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard and director of the university’s Center for Risk Analysis.
Honeycutt said Gradient’s scientists are “eminently qualified,” including Julie Goodman, heading the project, who has a master's degree in epidemiology and a doctorate in toxicology. A former fellow at the National Cancer Institute, Goodman is a principal scientist at Gradient and an adjunct lecturer at Harvard.
Responding to criticism leveled at her recent work, Goodman said in an interview with The Texas Tribune that “we should be judging science on the methods, and not who funded it.”
Some of the company's research funded by Texas has already been published, and it argues that a lower ozone standard won’t benefit public health. Honeycutt said the peer-reviewed publications add heft to the state’s opposition, and should help the EPA make a more informed decision. “We’re extremely pleased with the work that’s been done,” he said, and more is expected later this year.
Gradient is submitting some of its research as public comment to the EPA, and says such comments have affected the agency’s decisions on environmental regulations in the past.
But leading experts in the field of air pollution science argue the work Texas is paying for lacks credibility, both because of its poor methods and who is conducting it. Gradient's scientists, they say, almost always come to the same conclusion: A chemical or pollutant isn’t as bad for you as many other scientists have argued.
"There are these external groups that do not have any financial conflicts of interest, that have reviewed the literature and come to the exact opposite conclusion” as Gradient, Schwartz said. “And those have been endorsed by the major medical associations.”
The commission and Gradient researchers took issue with those characterizations, calling their findings honest, important scientific contributions that dare to challenge the establishment view.
“I would like to think that Texas is a leader” in its work on air pollution regulations, Honeycutt said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to … hold EPA’s feet to the fire.”
But Gradient's findings on ozone — and the commission's position — buck decades of research and consensus on environmental science, other experts said.
The prevailing argument for lowering the ozone standard "is something that’s gone through incredible peer review already,” said Richard Clapp, a professor emeritus of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Gradient’s scientists, Clapp said, are “smart and well-trained. But they also have a bias, and they have a perspective. That is why industry comes to them to do these kinds of reviews.”
The Smog of War
Also known as smog, ozone forms when emissions from cars, coal plants and the like mix with other airborne compounds in the presence of sunlight. High ozone levels exacerbate conditions such as asthma, lung disease and heart disease, and may even lead to premature death.
A fierce battle over ozone regulations has raged since the George W. Bush administration set the allowable standard at 75 parts per billion in 2008. It was a hugely controversial step that dismissed a unanimous advisory panel of scientists and doctors who said the standard should have been far lower.
A federal court partially agreed with the scientists in 2013, but by then, it was already time to update the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), which limit pollutants such as ozone and must be reviewed every few years.
Texas leaders feared a new standard as low as 60 parts per billion could cost states and businesses trillions of dollars to retrofit plants and further cut down pollution from traffic. (Already, more than 100 million people nationwide live in areas that don’t meet current ozone standards, including Dallas and Houston; a standard of 60 ppb could put Austin and El Paso out of compliance, too.)
The EPA is widely expected to announce a new ozone standard lower than 75, but it’s not clear how much lower.
“The deal is, the standards are getting lower and lower … so it’s like, do we really need to do this? Are we really getting a health benefit out of this?” Honeycutt asked.
So in early 2013, the commission sought bids from outside experts on a contract “to encourage and challenge the EPA to conduct an objective and rigorous scientific review … in order to obtain the required support for a proposed lowering of a NAAQS.” The focus would be on ozone, though it could be expanded to other air pollutants like lead.
The request for bids was widely circulated and went to universities, Honeycutt said, but there was only one applicant: Gradient, a 30-year-old environmental consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass.
The firm had already done similar work for clients like the American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council and other trade and industry associations. Gradient’s work for those groups nearly always argued against further limitations on air pollution, such as particulate matter, despite contrary recommendations from many scientists.
“There is an association, a very strong association, between industry funding and results that support what the industry wants to say,” said Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California, San Diego.
That doesn’t mean industry-funded research is always biased or flawed, he cautioned. But he was wary of a state government enlisting scientists occupying what is clearly an outlier position.
“To protect yourself and to protect your state — that calls for casting a wider net in trying to understand what the scientific consensus is on an issue, rather than choosing one particular perspective,” Kalichman said.
Weight of Evidence
Texas initially hired Gradient for $550,000 worth of work, but after several amendments, the contract ended up being worth $1.65 million. The contract pays for Goodman's work at an hourly rate of $330.
Speaking from her Cambridge office, Goodman said she’s always been interested in understanding the risks of a particular chemical or pollutant by reviewing all of the scientific evidence available, a process some call “weight of evidence.”
“My whole career is based on this idea of weight of evidence, or systematic review,” said Goodman, who along with colleagues at Gradient has looked at dozens of different ways of conducting such reviews. In 2013, with funding from the American Petroleum Institute, she authored a paper that put forward her own method for a "weight of evidence" review.
Since then, Goodman has used a version of that method to investigate whether ozone is really linked to cardiovascular problems, mortality and decreased lung function in the ways that the EPA claims.
That research — some funded by Texas — has led Goodman to conclude that the EPA has overstated the health risks of ozone under the current standard. “It’s good that we have an ozone standard,” she said, but the science doesn’t indicate that public health will by improved by lowering it further.
Goodman knows she has critics, but said she believes the EPA takes her seriously, noting that it revised its interpretations of how nitrogen oxide pollution may lead to negative health impacts after hearing from outside commenters, including Gradient.
But leading scientists interviewed by the Tribune said they believe Goodman’s research methods have serious flaws.
“It’s all a good thing that someone is looking very carefully at these determinations. There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Michael Jerrett, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research has linked ozone exposure with premature death. But he took issue with the way Gradient evaluated the research.
When assessing "weight of evidence," for instance, Gradient gives more credence to studies that use personal air monitors than research conducted using stationary monitors that glean data from the surrounding atmosphere.
Jerrett and many other experts disagree with that approach, saying that decades of research has helped improve measurements of ozone exposure. Using Gradient’s logic, he said, “you’re essentially setting up a criterion that’s virtually impossible to meet.”
Joel Tickner, an associate professor who focuses on environmental health and risk assessment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, likened Gradient’s research to that of the tobacco industry. For instance, he said, the firm often argues that no one knows the “mode of action” for certain pollutants: In other words, no one can point to exactly how the pollutant harms the lungs or other organs.
“We didn’t understand how smoking caused lung cancer until probably the late '80s,” Tickner said. “But we know it caused cancer.”
Skeptics on Both Sides
Among those upset that Texas hired Gradient was the Dallas County Medical Society, which has unsuccessfully petitioned the environmental commission to crack down on smog pollution from coal plants.
The 6,000-member group’s petition is mentioned in one portion of the Gradient contract, which asks for more than $700,000 worth of additional work investigating the association between ozone and asthma. That work is expected to be complete later this year.
“We are surprised and immensely disappointed to learn that they’ve done this,” said Robert Haley, a world-renowned epidemiologist and professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Haley, a past president of the medical society who led the group’s lobbying efforts for lower coal plant emissions, said Gradient's research does not accurately reflect how ozone affects human lungs.
Some scientists do share the views of Gradient and TCEQ, or at least express more skepticism than most when it comes to the risks of ozone. Many of them attended a TCEQ-sponsored workshop on ozone science in Austin earlier this year, which the agency paid Gradient $150,000 — as part of its contract — to help put together.
“In principle, lower is always better, but does a small difference in the ozone concentration really impact public health? In my opinion, the data just aren’t convincing,” said Mark Utell, a physician and professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester who attended the workshop and spoke on a panel. He called Gradient’s TCEQ-funded research “really quite interesting.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.