Judge blocks Trump rule to limit health studies in EPA regs

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FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2017, file photo, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Building is shown in Washington. The Trump administration has completed action on one of its biggest remaining rollbacks of public health and environmental rules. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler has wrapped up what he calls a transparency rule. The change could bar the agency from considering the findings of public-health studies unless the studies' raw data is made public. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

WASHINGTON – A federal judge has blocked a last-minute rule issued by the Trump administration to limit what evidence the Environmental Protection Agency may consider as it regulates pollutants to protect public health.

Former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Jan. 6 rule was aimed at ending what he and other Republicans call “secret science.″ Some industry and conservative groups had long pushed for the change, saying public health studies that hold confidential and potentially identifying data about test subjects should be made public so the underlying data can be scrutinized before the EPA issues rules aimed at protecting public health.

Wheeler called the rule an attempt to boost transparency about government decision-making, but critics said it was hastily imposed and would threaten patient confidentiality and the privacy of individuals in public health studies that underlie federal regulations.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Montana ruled late Wednesday that the EPA had unlawfully rushed the regulation, saying its decision to make it final just two weeks before then-President Donald Trump left office was “arbitrary" and "capricious.” Morris delayed the rule until at least Feb. 5, giving the new Biden administration time to assess whether to go forward with it or make changes.

An EPA spokesman said Friday the agency is "committed to making evidence-based decisions and developing policies and programs that are guided by the best science.''

EPA "will follow the science and law in accordance with the Biden-Harris administration’s executive orders and other directives in reviewing all of the agency’s actions issued under the previous administration,'' including the so-called Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science rule, spokesman Ken Labbe said in a statement.

Wheeler defended the rule, which was finalized in early January after years of debate.

“If the American people are to be regulated by interpretation of these scientific studies, they deserve to scrutinize the data as part of the scientific process and American self-government,″ he wrote in a Jan. 4 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. "Transparency is a defense of, not an attack on, the important work done by career scientists at the EPA, along with their colleagues at research institutions around the country.''