Don’t ask, don’t tell at the EPA


The chemical industry, public health-oriented scientists and environmentalists may be on the same page a couple of times a century.

In a good century.

Those who attended yesterday's House subcommittee hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency were treated to one of those startling moments: a representative for the American Chemistry Council concurred with adversaries that the EPA's process for evaluating the risks of toxic chemicals is too secretive.

Reflecting both camps' frustrations with the EPA, Democrats and Republicans on the House oversight and investigations panel joined forces to pummel EPA officials about a recent overhaul that gave the White House's Office of Management and Budget the power to intervene secretly in agency decisions about particular chemicals. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., called the EPA's new process "indefensible."

Officials of Congress's General Accountability Office told the panel that the White House-imposed review process "limits the credibility of the assessments because it lacks transparency." For instance, GAO reported, the White House ordered the EPA to terminate five reviews of suspected air pollutants without explaining why. The GAO says the EPA, which has assessed just four chemicals since 2006, is likely to grind through its 70-chemical backlog even more glacially because of the White House's ability to intervene at several points.

Ironically, the EPA's secrecy benefited the chemical industry in an episode scrutinized by the House panel. Deborah Rice, a toxicologist for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, took the stand to describe how she had been fired as chair of an EPA panel assessing the risk of a neurotoxic fire retardant known as deca (decabromobiphenyl ether).

Documents obtained in March 2008 by the Environmental Working Group disclosed that EPA removed Rice after ACC vice-president Sharon Kneiss complained to George M. Gray, EPA Assistant Administrator for Research and Development, that Rice had testified before the Maine legislature on the hazards of deca. Acting on Rice's advice and that of other health specialists, Maine banned the chemical. The state of Washington has also barred the use of deca, and 8 more states are considering bans. The chemical is banned in much of Europe.

Rice told the panel that her professional expertise and actions as a state employee should have not been used as grounds for firing her. "I believe that having an informed scientific opinion constitutes neither bias nor conflict of interest," Rice testified. "Indeed, if this is the definition of bias, then only individuals who are uninformed on a particular chemical would be considered suitable to serve as peer reviewers."

The EPA, siding with the chemical industry removed Rice, one of the country's preeminent experts on the toxic fire retardant, from the risk assessment panel. Yet, as EWG discovered, scores of individuals with direct financial ties to the chemical industry remain on a number of different EPA advisory panels.

The hearing produced yet more support for health, environment and consumer advocates who contend that the Bush administration has stacked scientific panels, manipulated or changed data, appointed inexperienced people to positions of authority and, in Rice's case, punished respected scientists whose offense is threatening corporate bottom lines.

Photo by Christian Science Monitor
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