Today I received the following statement from EPA Press Secretary Betsaida Alcantara:
"EPA remains committed to finalizing IRIS assessments in a timely manner while ensuring that the best possible science is used to protect human health and the environment. Contrary to recent press reports, the Agency has posted the IRIS assessments for n-butanol and 1,4 dioxane and is on track to issue several additional assessments by the end of September."
Not surprisingly, this statement raises more questions than it answers. First of all, EPA’s commitment to finalizing health assessments of chemicals under its IRIS program has not been the topic of concern; it is whether the White House shares that commitment, and the extent to which it is interfering in EPA’s process of issuing those assessments. Understandably, EPA is not able to comment on the commitment of the White House to finalizing IRIS assessments, or other pending matters. That said, it is nice to hear EPA reaffirm its commitment.
The press statement does not say which chemical assessments are “on track” to be issued by the end of September. Will it include TCE? Tetrachloroethylene (“perc”)? Arsenic? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In addition, the statement doesn’t address what has happened most recently. Why was the TCE assessment not issued as expected two weeks ago? Is the White House demanding changes to the assessment as a condition of approving its release?
As far as n-butanol and 1,4 dioxane, the press reports that both assessments were made “temporarily unavailable” without additional explanation were correct. The agency has subsequently updated its website several times to offer further explanation of the status of both assessments, which generally amounts to a short extension of the comment period for each. That doesn’t sound particularly nefarious, but there isn’t a clear explanation for the odd way the whole thing came about, or why the assessments were temporarily pulled back.
In short, the EPA statement appears to be an effort to offer public reassurance that everything is OK, and the integrity of the IRIS program is not in jeopardy. And, maybe things are actually fine, humming on all cylinders, no bumps in the road, no bears (or White House officials) hiding in the trees waiting to pounce, clear skies ahead. Perhaps the White House will indeed refrain from additional interference with EPA’s efforts to develop basic health assessments for chemicals. Still, the program merits watching, not just this month to see what is released, but in the months that follow.
The record of OMB interference with EPA on toxics issues under the Obama Administration is not encouraging. It has been nearly 500 days (subscription required) since the White House began its “90 day review” of EPA’s proposal to publish a small list of chemicals of concern – something the agency has been authorized to do by Congress since 1976 under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Just this week Senators Frank Lautenberg, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee’s subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health, and Sheldon Whitehouse, who chairs the Committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, sent a letter to the anti-regulations Czar Cass Sunstein, urging OMB to complete its review of the EPA proposal and release it to be published in the Federal Register. Other EPA efforts that have been on hold at OMB far in excess of 90 days include testing or information requirements for PBDE flame retardants (a class of chemicals that EPA also seeks to propose for inclusion on its chemicals of concern list) and nano materials.
And there is no question that industry is getting plenty of face time with the White House. A Wall Street Journal story Monday, (“White House Regulation Shift is a Political Bet”) described Sunstein and Chief of Staff William Daley as the leaders of the Administration’s effort to suppress additional regulations. Bill Kovacs of the Chamber of Commerce offered the observation that Sunstein has been “far more visible” since Daley took over as Chief of Staff. And the Chamber’s top lobbyist, R. Bruce Josten, recently told the Washington Post (“Obama’s decision on smog rule offers hints on regulation strategy”) that he was in frequent contact with Daley and other top Administration officials.
What is interesting about both the health assessments under IRIS, and the proposed Chemicals of Concern list under TSCA, is that they aren’t regulations, they are information. It is disturbing that the White House is devoting time and resources to policing and, in some cases, preventing, the EPA from performing some of its core functions including providing important health and safety information to the public. That is indefensible, and no EPA statement can alter that reality.