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EPA’s Restructured IRIS System: Have Polluters and Politics Overwhelmed Science?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 - 12:00am
Washington, DC

Opening Statement By Chairman Brad Miller

More than 80,000 chemicals are now in use, and another 700 new chemicals enter the marketplace each year.  Americans need an efficient system to evaluate the risk to public health and the environment of chemicals on a regular basis and have ready access to that information.  That is the mission of the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, but IRIS now has evaluations of only about 480 chemicals.

In recent years, IRIS’ assessments have not been the open discussions among scientists we associate with scientific peer review, but has become a secretive process managed by OMB.  OMB’s mission does not include scientific analysis, nor does OMB appear to have the expertise to perform such work.  As a result of OMB’s control of IRIS evaluation procedures, four chemicals have been listed on IRIS in the last two fiscal years.  EPA scientists produced 15 or so assessments in each of these years, but the assessments disappeared into an elaborate, endless series of reviews, mostly behind closed doors.  A weighing of the need for assessments against the productivity under IRIS appears to show that the system is fundamentally broken and cries out for reform.

Instead, EPA and OMB appear intent upon choking productivity under IRIS further still, and depriving the assessments of their remaining credibility.  Just last month, EPA unveiled its new process for developing and reviewing IRIS assessments.  The solution offered by EPA and OMB is to take a broken system and to make it more convoluted, secretive and suspect.

The new system establishes an interagency process that gives polluting agencies even more opportunity than they had before to slow walk the IRIS process to avoid the consequences of their own conduct.  With the new process announced April 10, we may view two new entries a year as the golden era of IRIS assessments.  As GAO will testify, it is highly likely that no new chemical entry that is the least bit controversial will ever come out of this system in less than six years, and probably eight years.

If the goal of the IRIS review process was to produce new IRIS entries, this system – designed at OMB and dutifully blessed by EPA’s leadership – would be judged an abysmal failure.  However, if the goal is to avoid new IRIS entries, or at least troublesome entries, then this new system should perform beautifully.  It effectively kills IRIS without honestly acknowledging that purpose.

How does it kill IRIS?

Any new entries or revisions that make it into IRIS will be of dubious reliability.  Any entries that make it into IRIS will emerge from a largely secretive process that allows polluters to urge EPA to shift its science so that it is acceptable to the polluting agencies.  The public will never have confidence that EPA stood firm on scientific principle, and fought off the combined forces of OMB, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy or any other agencies that may have a desire to avoid cleaning up their practices or their messes.  If the science appears to have been reworked behind closed doors to protect the interests of polluters, who can believe the science?

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB say that they are just managing an interagency process.  That is a fiction.  EPA is the agency that Congress directed – in statute – to do environmental science and charged with protecting public health and the environment.  EPA is given billions of dollars to carry out that research and regulatory work.

There is no need for the secret interagency process that OMB is mandating.  The Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Energy have entirely different missions and entirely different areas of expertise.  Their interest in IRIS is that of a polluter, not of a science agency.  OMB is using this interagency process to subvert the IRIS process and take it away from EPA’s control.

EPA will say this is really their process – honest – they control it and are happy with it.  Dr. Gray is a political appointee of the Administration.  His testimony has been vetted and approved by OMB.  EPA’s official response to the GAO report we will hear about today was vetted and approved by OMB.  And no IRIS entry can go forward without OMB approval.

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee this week held a hearing and issued a report that demonstrates the degree to which the White House has controlled the "opinions" of EPA on regulatory matters.  With IRIS, we see that even in the realm of science, EPA appears to follow the dictates of OMB.  Thousands of career scientists must answer to political appointees without scientific expertise not about how to manage risk, whether risk management measures are justified by the costs, but about what risks chemicals pose to public health and to the environment, a question in which political considerations should play no part.

Whatever your personal views of motive or intent of EPA or OMB, I think almost everyone would agree that just two new entries a year is simply not acceptable.  I look forward to GAO’s testimony today for offering advice to Congress on how to make IRIS relevant and responsive to the needs of the American public and not just a handful of polluters and their friends at OIRA.


Panel 1

1 - Mr. John Stephenson
Director Natural Resources and Environment Government Accountability Office Natural Resources and Environment Government Accountability Office
Download the Witness Testimony

Panel 2

1 - Dr. George Gray
Assistant Administrator for Research and Development Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency
Download the Witness Testimony

2 - Ms. Susan Dudley
Administrator Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Office of Management and Budget Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Office of Management and
Download the Witness Testimony

Witness Panels
Panel 1
GAO's John Stephenson testifies before the Subcommittee
Mr. Stephenson
Panel 2
EPA and OMB witnesses testify before the Subcommittee
L-R: Dr. Gray, Ms. Dudley
For information on the witnesses, use the links at left


Exhibits Submitted for the Record

Click link to download documents submitted at the hearingDownload the hearing exhibits

110th Congress