New Policy Prolongs EPA Chemical Reviews

Other Agencies Can Now Offer Secret Input

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; Page A07

The Bush administration has changed Environmental Protection Agency reviews of chemicals in a way that will delay scientific assessments of their health risks and open the process to politicization, congressional investigators said yesterday.

In a new report and in testimony on Capitol Hill, officials with the Government Accountability Office criticized a White House policy that began this month to allow the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies to offer secret input on assessments of long-term exposure to chemicals such as formaldehyde.

The reviews, which use the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), are an important step in an already backlogged process, GAO officials said. Regulators need to know if exposure to a chemical is likely to cause cancer or other health problems before they can decide whether and how to limit its use, they said.

"It is a precursor to doing anything else," said John B. Stephenson, the GAO's director of natural resources and environmental issues, who testified yesterday before a Senate committee. "That's how you decide whether you need to regulate or not."

EPA officials insisted that the change will make the risk assessment process even more accessible to the scientific community by drawing on outside expertise.

Agencies such as the Defense and Energy departments will now be able to submit comments, scientific studies and requests for further research. This could prolong by months or years the review of certain chemicals.

But many agencies, and the private contractors who do business with them, use some of the chemicals under review. And they could face cleanup costs or legal liability if the EPA were to decide to regulate the chemicals.

Stephenson said that an even larger concern is that the OMB has deemed the input "deliberative," which keeps it secret from the public and shielded from scientific debate. That makes it impossible to see whether agencies are acting in the interest of science or for less noble reasons.

"That's important, because transparency in the risk assessment process is the cornerstone of sound science," Stephenson said in an interview. "You can't have an administration that talks 'sound science' on the one hand and then breaks one of its principles in the scientific assessment process."

Even before the changes, the EPA had been way behind schedule in chemical risk assessments, the GAO found. Of 70 reviews being done in December, 48 had been ongoing for more than five years, including 12 that had taken more than nine years. Although the EPA's goal is to complete 50 assessments each year, it finished only four total in 2006 and 2007, Stephenson said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the integrity of the program is in jeopardy.

"Shunting scientists aside . . . is so obviously a problem," she said during the committee hearing. "No one should be in that room in the early risk assessment stages except the scientists and the people concerned about health. . . . They have tainted and corrupted the process."

Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, said the EPA process has become a "bureaucratic quagmire" in which political considerations often trump public health concerns.

"With these rules in place, it's now official: The Bush White House is where all good public health protections go to die," he said.

James B. Gulliford, an assistant administrator at the EPA, rejected the notion that the changes would give other federal agencies the power to influence scientific process for political ends. "At the end of the day, it's still EPA's decision," he said at the hearing. "It's a process that ultimately results in a science-based result."

Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.

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