Originally in Winston-Salem Journal

August 17, 2018

A new rule being considered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency would “censor science,” N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein said Friday, after joining a critical letter to the Trump administration.

The proposed EPA rule “would severely limit the scientific evidence that EPA can consider when adopting rules and standards to protect human health and the environment,” the letter says.

Stein signed it along with the attorneys general of 14 other states and the District of Columbia, plus others. They sent it to Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who is now in charge of the EPA after President Donald Trump’s previous choice to lead the environmental agency, Scott Pruitt, resigned in June while facing numerous scandals and ethics complaints.

Stein, a Democrat, said the new rule would ban the EPA from being able to use any scientific studies whose underlying data isn’t entirely available to the public, even if it’s peer-reviewed. In a statement posted online Friday, his office said this rule would force the EPA “to ignore many key health studies, since legally-required confidentiality protections prevent making those studies’ data public.”

And without the ability to consider scientific studies into human health, Stein and his allies fear, the EPA won’t be able to properly do its job.

“Prioritizing strong science should be a no-brainer for the EPA,” Stein said Friday in the release. “This rule is silly, but its impacts could be serious.”

The 33-page letter Stein and the others sent Wheeler concludes by saying this is Wheeler’s chance to distinguish himself from Pruitt. They also threatened a possible lawsuit if he does end up approving the rule.

“We urge EPA to jettison this tainted vestige of the prior leadership and restore public confidence in the Agency’s commitment to its core mission, and we stand ready to pursue legal remedies should EPA persist in this misguided effort,” the letter said.

Stein, who became the attorney general in 2017, has been criticized by Republicans for joining lawsuits or taking other actions they see as having possible political motivations.

About six months into his tenure, the Republican-led General Assembly slashed his office’s budget by $10 million.

“The attorney general’s job is to represent his client, and his client is the state of North Carolina, and in many respects, it’s the state of North Carolina as represented by the elected representatives of the state,” N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger said at the time. “There have been instances where the attorney general seems to believe that that’s not his job, that his job is to do whatever he thinks is appropriate.”

Stein has also previously attempted to stop the Trump administration’s plans to open up the East Coast to offshore drilling, to roll back parts of the Affordable Care Act and to take various immigration actions.

N.C.’s environmental concerns

Stein’s letter comes just a few days after EPA officials were in North Carolina — specifically in Fayetteville, to hear residents’ concerns over pollution caused by GenX and other so-called “emerging contaminants” with names like PFAS and PFOA.

Residents told environmental officials about their concerns over the pollution and the government’s response.

GenX is one of the reasons that the Trump EPA’s recent shift in favor of business interests have at times drawn bipartisan concerns in North Carolina.

Earlier this year North Carolina’s two senators, Republicans Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, sided with Democrats in Congress to shoot down one of Trump’s nominees for a senior EPA role, citing his close ties to the chemical industry.

The N&O reported at the time that Burr’s office said: “With his record and our state’s history of contamination at Camp Lejeune as well as the current GenX water issues in Wilmington, I am not confident he is the best choice for our country.”

According to a 2012 N&O article, as many as 750,000 people may have developed serious health problems — including leukemia and Parkinson’s disease — after being exposed to toxins in the water at Camp Lejuene between the 1950s and 1980s, and congressional leaders “called the episode ‘possibly the worst example of water contamination in our nation’s history.’”

A 2012 law that Burr helped push along with former Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, the Washington Post reported, gave those soldiers and their families free health care.

North Carolina is now facing a different environmental problem in GenX and related chemicals called PFOAs. The widely untested and unregulated group of chemicals is used in Teflon, microwave popcorn packaging, firefighting foam and other substances. A factory near Fayetteville made GenX and other similar chemicals, and for years dumped them into the Cape Fear River, which provides the drinking water for southeastern North Carolina.