Democrats on a House subcommittee on Thursday alleged that a database the Environmental Protection Agency designed to provide science on health risks that particular chemicals pose was stalled -- and could continue to be impeded -- because of improper Bush administration interference.
At a hearing on fixing EPA's Integrated Risk Information System, Democrats on the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight released a staff report that concluded the project collapsed amid interagency bickering fueled by the Bush administration's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
OIRA, the regulatory arm of the Office of Management and Budget, used its power to force EPA to undergo a multiyear interagency review before establishing a process for adding entries into the database, according to lawmakers. Critics of the Bush administration routinely alleged the former president ignored scientific facts in making policy decisions. President Obama has said scientific integrity is one of his highest priorities.
But a new assessment process that EPA introduced on May 21 still raises concerns among some Democrats. A requirement that all comments focus on science could allow OIRA to continue acting as an arbiter, rather than a coordinator, in the approval process, the report stated.
"So long as OIRA and OMB stand astride the top of the administration as representatives for the White House in discussions with EPA or others, it is hard to see how transparency alone will limit OIRA's influence over EPA," the report stated. "Given that so many of the same players who broke IRIS during the Bush years still stand in the agencies and in the White House complex, and the institutional powers and interests have not changed despite the November 2008 election results, it will take some time to determine whether EPA scientists really are calling the shots."
The Government Accountability Office in January listed EPA's Integrated Risk Information System as a high-risk area in its biennial status report on governmentwide areas requiring increased attention from executive agencies and Congress.
The Democrats' report argued OIRA's comments on proposed listings, issued during the Bush administration, would have changed the meaning of EPA's scientific findings. "All of this was done in secret, without any acknowledgment to the public or the Congress that OIRA was calling the shots," the report stated. "IRIS was broken, not by accident, but through conscious, sustained effort from officials in OIRA."
GAO auditors also concluded on Thursday, "EPA's efforts to finalize IRIS assessments have been impeded by a combination of factors, including the Office of Management and Budget's requiring two additional reviews of IRIS assessments . . .[that] involved other federal agencies in EPA's IRIS assessment process in a manner that hindered EPA's ability to manage its assessments and limited their credibility and transparency."
The input was not released to the public, GAO said.
To continue the system's development, GAO recommended EPA proceed with the new assessment process that the agency would manage, not OMB. Under the previous process, at various stages, EPA was barred from moving ahead with entries until OMB approved other agencies' comments and notified the EPA, auditors stated.
"The independence restored to EPA under the new process is critical in ensuring that EPA has the ability to develop transparent, credible IRIS chemical assessments," John B. Stephenson, GAO's director of natural resources and environment, told the panel.
But ownership of the peer review process must be accompanied by tighter timelines and EPA oversight, he added. "Unlike a number of other EPA programs with statutory deadlines for completing various activities, no enforceable deadlines apply to the IRIS program," Stephenson stated in written testimony released on Thursday.
Kevin Teichman, deputy assistant administrator for science at EPA's research and development office and acting EPA science adviser, testified that the new process is more streamlined, transparent and timely, "and will ensure the highest level of scientific integrity."
EPA will rely primarily on public review, followed by a "rigorous, open and independent external peer review process to guarantee the scientific quality" of the assessments, he added.
Teichman emphasized the new method eliminates the possibility that another agency will prolong the process by seeking additional research. EPA will announce the chemicals under assessment early enough for interested agencies to conduct short-term studies, which would be added to the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
EPA still will allow "opportunities for scientific comment by other federal agencies and White House offices" because it "welcomes input from interested experts that may add to the science quality of the draft or final assessment," Teichman said.