Director of office roiled by Pruitt policy shift will retire

By Sean Reilly | 01/10/2018 01:27 PM EST

The director of the U.S. EPA office that coordinates the work of two key advisory panels buffeted by recent changes in membership policy will retire next month after almost 40 years with the agency.

Chris Zarba announced his Feb. 2 departure in an email yesterday to members of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and various subcommittees.

Chris Zarba. Photo credit: U.S. EPA
Chris Zarba. | U.S. EPA

"Your efforts and commitment to providing EPA with high quality independent science advice is deeply appreciated," Zarba wrote in the message, obtained by E&E News. "The American public greatly benefited from SAB and CASAC reviews of the science that supports the agency’s policies and decisions and your contribution to these reviews has been significant.


"Thank you for letting me be part of this important work."

CASAC provides outside expertise to EPA during legally required reviews of the air quality standards for ozone and five other common pollutants. SAB advises the agency on a variety of topics.

Both panels have seen significant turnover since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced last October new membership criteria that include barring current recipients or beneficiaries of agency grants from serving. Zarba and his staff were charged with notifying members who were in conflict with that prohibition.

"Chris is great, and it was a real pleasure working with him," Robyn Wilson, an Ohio State University associate professor of risk analysis and decision science, said in an interview this morning. Wilson was among the researchers forced off SAB as a result of the new policy. "I imagine that this has been extremely stressful and challenging for him to carry out this directive that I imagine he personally disagrees with," she said.

Reached by phone, Zarba declined to comment on whether the new policy was a factor in his decision to retire. With a degree in environmental science from the University of Montana, he has headed what is officially known as the Science Advisory Board Staff Office for more than five years, according to yesterday’s email.

During a 38-year EPA career, he has held a variety of management positions, according to an online agency biography. Those include director of the National Center for Environmental Research, chief of staff at the Office of Research and Development and chief scientist of the Ocean Survey Vessel Peter W. Anderson. His email doesn’t indicate who will replace him.

EPA, which had about 15,000 employees when President Trump took office a year ago, has since seen more than 700 leave, The New York Times and ProPublica reported last month (Greenwire, Dec. 22, 2017).

Zarba "is just a tremendous individual and the EPA will certainly be less without him," said Peter Thorne, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Public Health who spent six years on SAB, the last two as chairman.

Tensions over Pruitt’s recent directive on the agency’s advisory panels, meanwhile, continue to escalate.

Wilson and two other former SAB members are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last month to overturn the prohibition on service by EPA grant recipients (E&E News PM, Dec. 21, 2017).

While Pruitt has defended the ban as needed to ensure members’ objectivity, critics have objected that he seems unfazed by the industry ties of many of the replacement appointees he has since named to the two panels.

Yesterday, two Democratic senators sought all EPA records specifically related to the selection of two of those new members, along with financial disclosure forms for every 2017 appointee to all of the agency’s almost two dozen advisory committees (Greenwire, Jan. 9).