Biden chooses Trump critic to lead EPA science office

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A longtime EPA expert adviser on aviation issues and a vocal critic of the Trump administration is The choice of President Biden to head the agency’s scientific office.

Chris Frey, whose pending appointment as EPA Deputy Administrator for Research and Development was announced by the White House yesterday, was a caustic critic of how Trump EPA handled a review of relative standards airborne particles, commonly known as soot.

After removing the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee at the end of his term in 2015, Frey, then a professor at North Carolina State University, was part of an adjunct group that assisted the committee. in the assessment of soot. He and other panel members were summarily dismissed in October 2018.

Then EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler later described their dismissal as a streamlining measure meant to help the agency meet a self-imposed deadline to complete the review by the end of 2020. Frey and other former members saw it as part of a larger ploy to bypass substantial scientific evidence for heightened soot standards.

Frey didn’t mince words when he addressed the committee at a meeting in December 2018.

“Today you should be asking yourself: do we have the necessary expertise in all of the most critical scientific disciplines to perform this review? Frey said, according to the written version of his comments which remain posted on an EPA website. “Clearly the answer is no. “

Frey is now back at EPA, this time as Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science Policy. Scientists congratulate him as a candidate to head the agency’s research office.

“I think Chris Frey is a great choice,” Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told E&E News. “He has tremendous credentials for the job, both in academia and in government.”

Bernie Goldstein, who was EPA’s deputy administrator for research and development under the Reagan administration, said Frey was “a great fit” for the job.

“Throughout his career, he has recognized that understanding the importance of the problem is a context necessary for developing and obtaining the right scientific and technical information,” Goldstein told E&E News. “And this solution of the problem depends on a process which leads to obtaining the right interpretation of potentially relevant scientific and technical information.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Frey would take the head of an office that has not had a Senate confirmed leader for over nine years. The last confirmed leader was Paul Anastas, who left the EPA in 2012. President Trump has never appointed anyone to fill the post (Green wire, July 29).

Additionally, the EPA’s scientific workforce was depleted during the Trump years. The agency recorded a net loss of 600 scientists between fiscal years 2016 and 2020, including 185 from its research office, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“He’s taking over an organization that was pretty suppressed during the Trump administration,” Birnbaum said, while adding that Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, former acting career director of ORD, left the office “in good shape” to Frey.

Orme-Zavaleta, who retired from the EPA earlier this year, said she was delighted Frey was chosen as a candidate, calling him an “outstanding and highly qualified scientist” who understands the agency.

“He has an excellent working relationship with the career leadership of ORD and the agency’s other policy makers,” Orme-Zavaleta said in an interview. “He is thoughtful, understands the connection between science and policy making and will be a strong advocate for science.”

Frey is one of the latest EPA candidates nominated by Biden. The White House has now announced 11 candidates for the agency, with only the EPA’s air office still not having a candidate.

republican opposition

Frey could wait months for confirmation from the Senate. He’s likely to face Republican scrutiny in the process.

Earlier this month, GOP members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee lobbied the EPA over what they called Frey’s “strong ties to China” after taking time off from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Green wire, September 7).

Republicans in the past have criticized the outcome of his work as an EPA adviser.

From 2012 to 2015, for example, Frey chaired CASAC, which is responsible for providing external expertise to the agency during reviews of ambient air quality standards for common pollutants. During its tenure, the committee – claiming that scientific evidence supported tighter limits – set in motion the process that in 2015 led the EPA to tighten its ground-level ozone standard to 70 parts per billion.

Among the critics of the decision was Senator Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.), now a senior member of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, who will take first place in Frey’s nomination.

In a 2015 statement after the EPA announced the 70 ppb limit, Capito said it would “jeopardize our ability to create new manufacturing jobs at a time when the growing natural gas reserves in the United States. West Virginia should mean more factories and factories are online ”.

Asked to comment on Frey’s planned appointment, a Capito spokesperson said in an email today that the senator “will judge each candidate on the basis of a lump sum of their testimony, past work and experiences. and answers to questions submitted for the dossier. “

Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chairman of the EPW committee, said in a statement: “The appointment of Dr Frey is the latest example of the Biden administration’s commitment to restore scientific integrity to the EPA. “

Carper also said, “I look forward to meeting him and appearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The agency is ready for Frey’s confirmation. EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said Frey was “highly qualified” to lead the agency’s research office, citing his service on the agency’s advisory boards and his previous academic work.

“Dr Frey is well positioned to lead the agency’s research programs and ensure that science is at the heart of everything the agency does to carry out our mission of public health and protection of the human being. environment, ”Carroll told E&E News.

“I think he knows his limits”

Frey and other former members of the Auxiliary Panel then came together informally under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists to conduct their own review of the soot standards. Frey chaired the panel, which found that annual and daily standards need to be tightened in order to prevent thousands of premature deaths each year.

“He is a tireless advocate for science-based policy making,” Peter Adams, professor of environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who also served on the unofficial panel, told E&E News. .

While the panel was unofficial, Frey insisted it operate according to EPA protocols, according to Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and John Balmes. , professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who also served on the panel.

“We have all been very impressed and satisfied with his leadership,” Balmes said in an interview. “Not only is he brilliant, but he’s a good critical thinker.” Balmes’s only caveat was that the Office of Research and Development had a broader portfolio than research into the effects on air quality which is Frey’s specialty.

Balmes added, however, that “I think he knows his limits when it comes to where he needs to seek help.”

The EPA’s official review of the particulate matter standards ended last December with Wheeler’s decision to leave the standards unchanged, despite the agency’s career staff finding that the annual benchmark should be tightened. .

Under the Biden administration, the EPA is now reconsidering that standstill decision, with meetings of a newly appointed advisory group set to begin next month.


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