By CHERYL HOGUE
It seems improbable — a regulatory agency officially inviting polluters to secretly influence the scientific judgments it uses in crafting cleanup plans. But it happened earlier this year.
And it's likely to have impacts in the communities you cover, especially if they're facing pollution threats from a nearby military base or a Department of Energy or NASA facility.
A new policy instituted by the Bush Administration in April changes a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency procedure for distilling scientific studies on toxic chemicals into information useful to regulators.
Federal, state and local officials rely on this information as they make key decisions such as the degree of cleanup required at a polluted site or the amount of a contaminant allowable in drinking water. Regulators from outside the United States, particularly in developing countries, also depend on this information, which is posted in an online EPA database called the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).
The new Bush policy gives federal agencies facing liability for contamination— such as the Department of Defense—formal,behind-closed-doors opportunities to sway EPA's chemical assessments. They stand to save big dollars in cleanup costs or other steps, such as finding substitutes for a toxic chemical, if they can convince EPA to downgrade a pollutant's risks.
From an open government perspective, this is grim news. The policy deems closed-door discussions among agencies about EPA's chemical assessments to be "deliberative" and shielded from public view. This exempts the communications from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
George Gray, EPA assistant administrator for research and development, defends the secrecy provision. He told a Senate hearing in May that protection from public disclosure "encourages a free and frank exchange" among federal agencies.
But according to David Michaels, a George Washington University professor and former DOE official in the Clinton Administration, the institutionalized secrecy demotes the views of EPA scientists and rewards greater weight to the views of federal agencies whose main mission is not protecting health or the environment.
Michaels, an SEJ academic member, said at the hearing, "We would never allow the EPA, in secret, to delay military activities." Michaels said. Yet under the new policy, Michaels continued, "DOD, in secret, has the ability to block EPA efforts to protect human health and the environment."
Michaels is author of Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the non-partisan research arm of Congress, is harshly critical of the new policy. In a recent report (GAO-08-440), GAO says the policy limits both the usefulness and scientific credibility of EPA's chemical assessment, especially the secrecy provision.
"It is critical that input from all parties – particularly agencies that may be affected by the outcome of IRIS assessments – be publicly available," GAO says.
GAO also took the unusual step of recommending that Congress suspend the EPA policy.
Lawmakers in Congress are worried that the new policy is affecting EPA's scientific integrity. They are probing the matter through hearings and are asking for more information from the Bush Administration.
The new policy also gives federal polluters a special oppor- 2 2 SEJournal SUMMER 2008 tunity to further slow down EPA's already years-long process for assessing a chemical. They can declare that a chemical under scrutiny is critical to their mission, which allows them to put an EPA assessment on hold for years until they complete additional research. The policy's definition of "mission critical" appears broad enough to allow many pollutants to fall within it.
This provision could leave local, state, and EPA regulators without critical information on a contaminant as they make decisions that affect people's health and the environment for decades.
The story continues to unfold. Stay tuned to whether Congress tries to pass legislation overturning the new policy or refuses to fund implementation of the policy in fiscal 2009.
EPA's Integrated Risk Information System: www.epa.gov/iris  New policy on chemical assessments: http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=190045 
GAO's report: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08440.pdf 
Related GAO testimony to Congress: http://www.gao.gov/new.  items/d08743t.pdf
Webcast of Senate Environment and Public Works Committee May 7 hearing available through: http://epw.senate.gov/public/ 
Cheryl Hogue tracks scientific integrity issues at EPA for Chemical & Engineering News. She admits a bias – she supports open government and believes it's a key element to effective democracy
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008
A controversial new Bush Administration policy affects entries into the Environmental Protection Agency's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS)
This online database contains EPA's assessments of the risks of developing cancer and other, non-cancer health effects, such as kidney disease, from exposure to toxic chemicals.
Many environmental journalists depend on IRIS as a source of peer-reviewed government information about pollutants.
The database entries are based on EPA's scientific judgment about a chemical. The assessments often include safety factors to provide protection for those particularly vulnerable to the effects of exposure to the substance, especially children.
IRIS assessments provide EPA's best estimate of a "safe dose" for a chemical. This often takes the form of a safe daily dose — how much of a chemical a person could ingest in food or water every day for a lifetime and not get sick from it. EPA's term for this is a reference dose, or RfD.
For some substances, notably volatile ones, the agency establishes a reference concentration or RfC. This refers to how much of the chemical in air a person could breathe for a lifetime without ill effects.
In the past 30 years, EPA scientists have processed toxicity data — mainly drawn from studies on laboratory animals — to produce assessments for more than 500 chemicals. Assessments of dozens more substances, from flame retardants to pesticides to perfluorooctanoic acid, are in the works. They generally take several years to complete.
The assessment for trichloroethylene, a widely used solvent degreaser that is a widespread contaminant in groundwater, has been pending for a decade.
The Government Accountability Office recently found that EPA finished only four chemical assessments in 2005 and two each in 2006 and 2007.
The agency in 2003 estimated that it needs to complete 50 assessments annually to keep up with the needs of regulators, who recommend more chemicals for inclusion into IRIS each year.