Texas Toxicologist Who Rejects Basic Science Appointed to EPA Science Board

The Trump administration continues to scout Texas officials who’ve repeatedly attacked the very policies that they’re now charged with implementing.

For years Texas’ chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, has accused the EPA of scaring the public about the health risks of toxic chemicals. The EPA, he has said, “ignores good science which demonstrates that a chemical is not as toxic as they think it is,” uses “‘chicken little’ toxicity values” and doesn’t “do common-sense groundtruthing.” Honeycutt has repeatedly put himself outside the scientific mainstream by arguing that pollutants are not nearly as harmful as the evidence suggests.

Mercury? EPA is “overstating” the risks of exposure and ignoring the fact that the Japanese eat 10 times as much fish as Americans.

Arsenic? It couldn’t be unsafe because we’re not seeing increases in cancer rates that would be true if EPA’s assessment is “realistic.”

Ozone? EPA’s ozone rules are unnecessary because “Americans likely spend at least 90 percent of their time indoors.”

Now, the Trump administration is tapping Honeycutt to lead EPA’s Science Advisory Board, a body of experts that provides objective scientific advice to the agency. The board was created in 1978 by Congress and charged with the mission of providing impartial science free of political interference. His appointment — like that of Rick Perry, Susan Combs and Kathleen Hartnett White — continues the trend of the Trump administration headhunting Texas officials who’ve repeatedly attacked the very policies that they’re now charged with implementing.

In announcing his appointment on Tuesday, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt called Honeycutt a “wonderful scientist” and said he had been chosen out of 130 applicants. Honeycutt’s appointment, along with two others to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and Board of Scientific Counselors, will bring more geographic diversity to the boards, which historically have been dominated by appointments from the East and West coasts, he said.

“It’s a big mistake to appoint Michael Honeycutt to lead the Science Advisory Board,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said in a written statement. “Dr. Honeycutt has made repeated public statements undermining the integrity of the science on ozone as well as other pollutants, including mercury, despite consensus from the medical community on the harms of exposure to such pollutants.”

Environmental and public health advocates say Honeycutt cherrypicks facts to fit his arguments, which often are contrary to scientific consensus and are often deployed to attack environmental regulation in the courts and in EPA rulemaking. Perhaps the best example of Honeycutt’s role concerns his work on smog.

Smog in Houston  Jonathan Lewis

For more than a decade, Texas has been in a tussle with the EPA over limiting emissions of smog-causing pollutants from power plants. EPA’s limits on ozone, a component of smog, have grown more stringent with time, and as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s chief toxicologist, Honeycutt has attacked the basic underpinnings of limits on smog. Reducing ozone levels, he has said, will not lead to any significant health benefits and if asthma “were actually tied to ozone, you would expect to see the instances of asthma decreasing, not increasing.” Those arguments are contrary to the overwhelming scientific evidence that higher ozone levels exacerbate respiratory illnesses, particularly in children and the elderly.

Last year, Honeycutt sent more than 100 emails to industry representatives, state air pollution regulators, university professors and scientists asking them to support his nomination to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. At the time, he wrote that it would be a “minor miracle” if he were selected. He was also considered for a position on the committee in 2015, which environmental groups petitioned. He “consistently takes positions favoring industry and a lax regulatory climate over public health protections” and his appointment to the committee would lead to “an appearance of a loss of impartiality,” seven environmental groups wrote.  

Honeycutt, who joined TCEQ in 1996, will continue in his role at the agency, TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow said. She said it would be “premature” to answer questions about any changes he might propose to EPA’s chemical assessment process.

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She is currently an Ida B. Wells fellow at The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

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Published at 4:23 pm CST
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