The No. 2 official at the Environmental Protection Agency has raised "serious questions" of impropriety and possible illegal procedure by meeting with industry groups during debate on whether to ban two widely used chemicals, Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) charged yesterday.
Moffett summoned EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch and her deputy, Dr. John Hernandez, to a stormy session of the House Government Operations subcommittee on the environment, which he chairs, to question them about six meetings Hernandez held between June 19 and Sept. 29 at EPA with chemical industry representatives.
The two officials and industry spokesmen denied any impropriety, saying the meetings were scientific in nature and open to all.
Of the 92 people who attended the meetings, not one represented environmental or public interest groups and all but five were from EPA or industries concerned with the two chemicals, formaldehyde and DEHP (di-ethylhexyl phthalate), Moffett's documents showed.
He said that reflected "a lack of regulatory mentality" which the agency also demonstrated in proposed budget cuts and policy shifts. It adds up, Moffett said, to "a massive retreat from environmental protection led by the very agency charged with providing that protection."
The hearing, largely a series of heated exchanges during which the witnesses and the congressmen repeatedly interrupted each other, was the second lively Capitol Hill appearance for Gorsuch in the past week. Earlier she withstood a recommendation that she resign along with attacks on her budget approach from members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Gorsuch said she had asked Hernandez to review the scientific data on formaldehyde and DEHP, both widely used chemicals which a May 20 EPA memo said caused cancer in test animals and recommended that they be regulated.
Formaldehyde is used in embalming and in glues for particle board, plywood, furniture and many other products, and DEHP is a resin used to make plastic products more flexible.
Gorsuch said she endorsed Hernandez' approach, which involved agreeing to requests from the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the Formaldehyde Institute for some meetings to discuss the animal tests that led to the recommendation.
A letter from the Natural Resources Defense Council expressing interest in the DEHP proceedings, she said, was not a request for a meeting but a notification of intent to sue, and she had not passed that on to Hernandez.
"I had no idea from meeting to meeting who was going to be there," Hernandez said. "It was kind of an ad hoc thing." He said he had insisted that only scientific issues and no policy matters be discussed.
"Come on," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "They brought their lawyers because they understood they were in a policy-influencing context."
Hernandez said such meetings "take place in all government agencies every day." But Moffett cited a letter from the Formaldehyde Institute calling the meetings "an innovative idea . . . a forum that works." The industry, Moffett said, "perceives this as unusual and delightful, and that's all we're trying to establish."
In a statement after the session, Edmund B. Frost, vice president and general counsel of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, said the Natural Resources Defense Council had failed to participate in several other open EPA sessions on DEHP.
"Environmental groups have chosen to use the courts for decision-making rather than the agencies," he said. "If they have something to say about DEHP they ought to ask for a meeting, their own meeting, and tell EPA about it."
Charges of impropriety at the CMA meetings are "totally unfounded" since private meetings are "the way government has always operated," he said.