A Little Context for U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson's Epic Jeremiad Against Lamar Smith's EPA Subpoena

U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson got a few things off of her chest last week during a recent House committee hearing. Last week, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, chaired by Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, issued a congressional subpoena for the first time in more than two decades. They're after the EPA's "secret science," the data upon which much of the Clean Air Act limits are based.

Smith wants to open the data up to the public to allow "the American people the ability to verify the EPA's claims." At the opening of the hearing, Johnson unloaded on Smith. "Just yesterday, you readily admitted that you intend to pass on this confidential data to third parties. Who, Mr. Chairman? What legitimate scientific research can't already access this data? I have to assume you'll be passing this data to, excuse my language, industry hacks. To so blatantly be doing the bidding of this polluting industry is simply mind-boggling."

Johnson's diatribe comes across as the pedestrian partisan bickering we've grown so accustomed to. Out of context, it's political white noise. That's why a little context helps.

The data in question comes from the seminal Harvard Six Cities study. Researchers sited air-monitoring stations in six American towns and strapped mobile ambient air-quality sampling packs to many of the thousands of study participants, whom they followed for 17 years. From 1974 to 1991, they checked in with these folks annually to ascertain their vital status. After controlling for smoking and other risk factors, they found that air pollution shortened their participants' lives.

In 1993, the researchers published their work in the New England Journal of Medicine, proving that pollution meant more to humans than smog and foul-smelling air. It kills us slowly. They added to the data eight additional years of follow-up in another peer-reviewed journal in 2006. During that time, air pollution levels decreased in the cities. So too did the associated risk of death from heart and lung disease.

Citizens for a Sound Economy, a deregulation advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, understood the implications better than anyone. They knew that the data would almost certainly be used by the EPA to regulate air pollution, like particulate matter. Luckily, they had friends in Congress who demanded that the study authors release their raw data. Because much of that data consisted of personal health information, and because the authors had promised the participants that they wouldn't drag their private lives into the public realm, they declined.

The EPA, as Koch Industries suspected, wanted to rely on the data for new air pollution limits. Under stiff pressure from anti-regulatory lawmakers, the agency struck on a compromise. They let an independent group of scientists attempt to poke holes in the conclusions and methods of the Harvard study. The group came away impressed, affirming the findings. In fact, it's now a model for air quality studies around the world.

Now a powerful House committee is calling once again for the Six Cities "secret data," as Smith characterizes it. He claims Congress has been stonewalled by the EPA and he has been left with no choice but to subpoena it. As Johnson has noted time and again, EPA supplied the committee with data that had been "de-identified" to protect the privacy of the study participants. Apparently, that wasn't good enough for Smith. When asked to whom he would give this raw data to, he said "It wouldn't be fair to identify individuals or organizations."

After being lambasted as an industry tool by Johnson, Smith asked her to retract some of her statement. After a fashion, she did. Then she added that the tactic of thwarting regulation by discrediting science is a tactic as old as Big Tobacco. "I want to be clear: This is not legitimate oversight. This is not an appropriate role for this committee. My job is not to undermine the public health at the behest of polluting industry."

You can watch a video of the hearing here.

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