From the Washington Post:
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.
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.
[John B. Stephenson, the GAO’s director of natural resources and environmental issues] 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.
“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.
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.
Don’t forget, kids, if it’s Wednesday, it’s time to take it to the Street!