Last summer, the seven doctors and scientists on the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee unanimously recommended significantly strengthening federal smog standards. Current allowable levels of smog-producing ozone — 70 parts per billion — cause serious health problems (e.g. a "decrease in lung function, increase in respiratory symptoms, and increase in airway inflammation"), the panel concluded. Science, and the burning lungs of asthmatic children, dictated the standard should be closer to 60 ppb.
Industry groups, predictably, decried the proposed new standards as job-killing, economy-wrecking overreach. So did the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt. Honeycutt challenged the evidence that a 60 ppb ozone standard would indeed lower health risks; indeed, he suggested that lower ozone levels would actually kill people. (The EPA's own predictions for a 60 ppb standard indicated increase in ozone-attributable deaths in Houston and New York, since lowering ozone levels would also lower levels of nitrogen oxide, which could temporarily increase ozone levels since the compound dissipates fully formed ozone, but the effect would be temporary.) Honeycutt also suggested lower ozone levels were unnecessary because people spend 90 percent of their time indoors.
Honeycutt's opposition wasn't a surprise. To environmental groups, Honeycutt has become the poster child for the toxic but under-appreciated impact of Governor Rick Perry's unprecedented reign as governor: the politicization of what should be a science-driven, public-health-focused agency through careful political appointments and sheer longevity. Over the years, Honeycutt has established himself as one of the most prominent deniers of mainstream science on the health effects of ozone. In 2010, according to The New York Times, he questioned the link between higher ozone levels and increased hospital admissions for lung problems and declared that the stricter standards then under consideration were a non-starter because they might interfere with people's driving habits. "Programs that require lifestyle changes are unacceptable to the public." A year later, he was offering similar testimony to Congress.
But Honeycutt — or someone — isn't content with him critiquing federal ozone policy from the sideline. He is currently being considered for appointment to the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee — the very body whose recommendations he has so pointedly objected.
Essentially all of Texas' major environmental groups have united in opposition to Honeycutt's appointment. Yesterday leaders of the Sierra Club's Texas chapter, the Environmental Defense Fund, Environment Texas and four other advocacy groups sent a letter to the EPA calling for officials there to reject Honeycutt's appointment.
Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger says Honeycutt "routinely disputes commonly held scientific views around how pollution can impact people's health," which conflicts with the EPA's stated qualifications for CASAC membership, particularly the one requiring the “absence of an appearance of a loss of impartiality.”
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"His appointment to the CASAC would be a disaster for clean air and would really undermine that body's efforts to date, which have been science-based," Metzger says.
In a prepared statement released through a TCEQ spokesman, Honeycutt says he is well-qualified and "would be honored to serve on the CASAC."
"I have nearly 20 years of experience directly applicable to serving on the CASAC," he said. "My division is responsible for deriving safe levels of air contaminants for the state of Texas. We have developed new methods for deriving safe levels of air contaminants that we have published in the peer-reviewed literature. We have also published our safe levels in the peer-reviewed literature."
Honeycutt's is one of 27 names submitted for consideration on the seven-member body, the vast majority of them scientists employed by major universities. Anyone, including the candidate himself, can nominate an individual to serve on CASAC. The Clean Air Act does require that one of CASAC's members must represent a state environmental agency. Honeycutt is the only person nominated from a state agency this year, but it appears that the current state regulator on the board, George Allen, has one year remaining on his three-year term. In other words, Honeycutt's expertise might not be needed. An EPA spokesman on Thursday declined to disclose who nominated Honeycutt, but Honeycutt says it was the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies, an august-sounding body that just so happens to be composed almost exclusively of Republican-led states whose leaders are skeptical of the EPA.
This post was updated to include Honeycutt's response.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.