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Dec 7, 2:49 PM EST

EPA chief denies sidelining science pros to appease industry



WASHINGTON (AP) -- Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said Thursday that his proposed regulatory rollbacks and other policies are grounded in science, dismissing criticisms that he is sidelining experts in a push to appease favored industries.

Pruitt defended his approach during his first appearance before a House oversight subcommittee responsible for environmental issues. The former Oklahoma attorney general said science is central to ongoing reviews of pollutants, toxic waste cleanups and other actions.

"It is a matter of priority to make sure that we have scientific rules at the agency that are objective, transparent and peer reviewed and that's a commitment we are enforcing at the agency," said Pruitt, a Republican.

Committee Democrats grilled Pruitt over what ranking member Frank Pallone of New Jersey called an "unprecedented assault on independent science" by purging academic experts from federal advisory boards and replacing them with industry representatives.

Pruitt in November appointed a new slate of members to 22 boards that provide input on issues such as drinking water standards and air pollution limits. For the chairmanship of EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors, he selected a former agency official who became an executive of a company that burns waste to generate electricity.

He also said he has barred from the boards current recipients of EPA grants or those in a position to benefit from them to avoid conflicts of interest. Twenty scientists on three committees have received $77 million in grants, which "causes a perception or appearance of a lack of independence in advising the agency on a host of issues," Pruitt told the subcommittee. Pruitt made no such prohibition for those who receive funding from industries regulated by EPA.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., asked for specific examples of an EPA grant recipient offering "conflicted advice." Pruitt said he could provide "many examples of scientists who received grants over a period of time that were substantial and it called into question that independence, and we addressed that through the policy that we implemented."

Tonko said Pruitt's EPA was ignoring scientific consensus through its downplaying of climate change and its approach to regulation and eroding staff morale by censoring experts.

"I believe EPA has all the signs of an agency captured by industry," he said.

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Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.

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Follow AP environmental writer Michael Biesecker at http://Twitter.com/mbieseck

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