An environmental group sued the White House and six federal agencies yesterday, seeking to block the government from permitting the release of genetically altered living organisms into the environment.
The Foundation on Economic Trends and its president, Jeremy Rifkin, alleged in the suit that the Reagan administration's policies for regulating such experiments were developed in "an arbitrary and capricious" manner and violated federal law. The foundation is based in Washington.
The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asks the court to declare unlawful the White House's recently released package of rules and regulations governing biotechnology -- the manipulation of living cells and genetic material to create innovative products.
The policy package was developed over the last two years and was issued in its final form last month to clarify and coordinate the way individual regulatory agencies handle new products of biotechnology such as drugs, crops, pesticides, vaccines and food additives.
"The White House regulations fail to provide an adequate basis for risk asessment for this potentially dangerous new technology," Rifkin said yesterday.
The greatest danger is posed by the outdoor release of genetically altered living organisms such as microbes that companies want to use as pesticides or herbicides, he said. These organisms might multiply and migrate, causing "substantial, even devastating, environmental disruption," the suit contends.
Federal agencies contend that they can weigh the risks posed by products on a case-by-case basis.
The suit alleges that the White House regulatory package violates the National Environmental Policy Act because the government failed to conduct a documented evaluation of the policies' potential effects on the environment. The suit also alleges that the policies were issued in violation of other procedural requirements.
The policy package was issued June 26 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and was developed by the White House Domestic Policy Council Working Group on Biotechnology, with representation from several regulatory agencies. Named as defendants in the suit were officials from OSTP, the working group, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Labor.
FDA Commissioner Frank Young called the lawsuit "hogwash" and said "it would be implausible to think we would be frivolous in developing these policies after all this time."
None of the officials at other agencies had seen the suit or would comment on it yesterday.