Improving the Scientific and Technical Information Available to the Environmental Protection Agency in Its Decisionmaking Process

CED-79-115: Published: Sep 21, 1979. Publicly Released: Sep 21, 1979.

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The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) statutes proclaim national goals of rapid improvement and protection of the environment and the public against health hazards. Trying to meet these demands places EPA between two groups with divergent views and competing interests. Environmental groups urge EPA to promulgate and enforce strict controls, while industry stresses the economic consequences and technological difficulties in implementing the controls. One by-product of this confrontation is litigation against EPA as a result of its decisions. Even though such suits are commonplace, most of them do not involve substantive issues, but rather procedural or statutory interpretation. The regulations and standards deal with scientific and technical issues where supporting data and research are not yet available or conclusive. In 1977 the National Academy of Sciences made a study of the EPA decisionmaking process, particularly for acquiring and using scientific and technical information.

The study found no major flaws, but some improvements are needed. Official procedures need to be finalized and published to ensure that the process is carried out properly and consistently throughout EPA. EPA also needs to recognize more formally its Science Advisory Board which contributes to the decisionmaking process. Another way scientific and technical information could be considered would be to have a science court in which an administrative law judge and a panel of scientists would decide the scientific facts to be considered in a decision. Because of the limited number of major cases involving scientific and technical information, the creation of a permanent science court is not justified now, but further consideration of the concept is warranted. Mediation is another way which can be used to ventilate scientific disputes, which would lay out the alternatives rather than reach a conclusion like the science court. A fourth potential mechanism is to develop a number of commissions on the long-term controversial issues which could organize debates, seek clarification, explore alternatives, and create panels of experts to advise congressional committees. The argument that, because judges lack sufficient expertise to make technical determinations, a separate judicial environmental court should be established has little merit. The federal courts' primary role is to evaluate whether EPA followed a reasonable decisionmaking process, not to determine scientific validity or to decide technical disputes.

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