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GAO to Congress: Take the Reins at EPA to Stop Undermining of Science

(Beyond Pesticides, May 1, 2008) In testimony responsive to a request last year by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on April 29 that EPA’s risk review process is plagued by delays, a lack of transparency, and interference from the White House and other agencies. In short, GAO concluded that the agency’s science is politicized, outdated, secret, and threatens the protection of people and the environment from harmful chemical exposures. In its testimony, GAO’s director of Natural Resources and Environment, John Stephenson, urged Congress to suspend EPA plans for reform, which GAO believes would institutionalize bad science, and require the agency to adopt its recommendations.

The testimony comes on the heels of an April 10, 2008 EPA decision, effective immediately, to revise its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). The program was severely criticized by GAO in a March 2008 report, Chemical Assessments: Low Productivity and New Interagency Review Process Limit the Usefulness and Credibility of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (GAO-08-440). While EPA said it would consider the report’s recommendations, GAO said in its testimony this week, Toxic Chemicals: EPA’s New Assessment Process Will Increase Challenges EPA Faces in Evaluating and Regulating Chemicals (GAO-08-743T), “EPA’s new process is largely the same as the draft GAO evaluated, and some key changes also are likely to further exacerbate the productivity and credibility concerns GAO identified.”

Key issues that were recommended by GAO and ignored include streamlining its lengthy assessment process and adopting transparency practices “that provide assurance that IRIS assessments are appropriately based on the best available science and that they are not inappropriately biased by policy considerations.”The report cites the dioxin assessment as an “example of an IRIS assessment that has been, and will likely continue to be, a political as well as a scientific issue.” In his testimony, Mr. Stephenson cites an example of clear Office of Management and Budget (OMB) interference in the IRIS process. “For example, without communicating its rationale for doing so, OMB directed EPA to terminate five IRIS assessments that for the first time addressed acute, rather than chronic exposure – even though EPA initiated this type of assessment to help it implement the Clean Air Act,” he said.

In her opening statement at the hearing, Chairwoman Boxer said,

The GAO report I am releasing today criticizes the Bush Administration changes to the risk assessment process and makes clear the danger faced by the public when political interference and the influence of polluters affects EPA’s ability to address the risks of toxic chemicals.Under EPA’s new approach politics can be-and already has been-injected into multiple stages in the process.

Even worse, the new procedure effectively requires the White House the Department of Defense (DOD) – which contracts out much of its weapons programs — to agree with EPA on any risk assessment before it goes forward and is made public. The entire process of White House and interagency debate is kept secret, which GAO and EPA scientists say undermines the credibility of EPA’s scientific assessments.

That is because EPA scientists are being pushed aside by White House operatives and polluters.

The result of the ongoing deterioration of the IRIS system is a database, according to GAO, that “is at serous risk of becoming obsolete because the agency has not been able to routinely complete timely, credible assessment or decrease a backlog of 70 ongoing assessments. IRIS was created in 1985 as a tool for agency consensus on the health effects of chronic exposure to chemicals. The current database contains assessment of more than 540 chemicals. The failure of IRIS characterizes the broader failure of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which in 1976 authorized EPA to obtain information on chemicals and regulate those that cause an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. According to GAO, EPA has used its authority to require testing for few of the over 60,000 chemicals that were in commerce when TCSA was enacted. GAO critiqued the program in two reports, one in 2005, Chemical Regulation: Actions Are Needed to Improve the Effectiveness of EPA’s Chemical Review Program (GAO-06-1032T), and one in 2006, Chemical Regulation: Options Exist to Improve EPA’s Ability to Assess Health Risks and Manage Its Chemical Review Program (GAO-05-458).

The GAO also compared TSCA and the European Union’s new chemical control policy Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) in two reports, Chemical Regulation: Comparison of U.S. and Recently Enacted European Union Approaches to Protect Against the Risks of Toxic Chemicals (GAO-07-825) and Chemical Regulation: Approaches in the United States, Canada, and the European Union (GAO-06-217R). GAO concludes that REACH puts the burden squarely on the chemical industry to provide regulators with health and environmental effects information, while TSCA does not.




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