Yesterday, yet more information about the politicization of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to light as the result of a congressional investigation.
One of the responsibilities of the EPA is to protect Americans from exposure to toxic chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, and death when found in air, food, or water — such as Alar, chlordane, formaldehyde, and malathion. Since 1985 the EPA has placed its scientific risk assessments of such chemicals into a database called the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). In a contentious oversight hearing yesterday, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) released a damning report that exposed how the “assessments are being undermined by secrecy and White House involvement.”
Before Stephen L. Johnson became administrator in 2005, the assessment process was a straightforward one run by the staff scientists of the EPA:
Even so, the IRIS assessment program was slow and deliberative, with fewer than 15 full-time staff and under 10 assessments completed each year from 2000 to 2004. But in 2004, the process was changed to give the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) oversight of the program:
Although IRIS staff has quadrupled, productivity has collapsed. In fiscal 2006 and 2007, only two assessments were completed. The current process gives OMB control over IRIS assessments — the GAO found the OMB aborted five assessments in 2006 without explanation. Other federal agencies such as the Departments of Defense and Energy — who “are among the biggest contributors to toxic Superfund sites” — can interfere with the assessment in complete secrecy and add years of delay. On April 10, the EPA announced it would be further changing the process to institutionalize this complete takeover of scientific procedure:
In the words of Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group, “With these rules in place, it’s now official: The Bush White House is where all good public health protections go to die.”
Not only is the corruption of the IRIS process is a clear example of the Bush administration’s politicization of the EPA, it is also emblematic of its pursuit to raise the Executive Branch above the law.
The OMB’s Kevin Neyland argued vociferously that all “interagency deliberations” should be shielded from any scrutiny because “these documents are covered by the deliberative process privilege.” Neyland cited the Freedom of Information Act, NLRB vs. Sears, Roebuck & Co., and EPA vs. Mink, to conclude: “accordingly, protection of internal Executive Branch communications is not ‘inconsistent with the principle of sound science.’”
John B. Stephenson, the GAO’s director of natural resources and environmental issues, explained to the Washington Post that “transparency in the risk assessment process is the cornerstone of sound science.” In his report, Stephenson shot down the OMB’s defense in no uncertain terms:
Contrary to OMB’s assertion, the report specifically acknowledges that OMB considers the documents at issue to be protected from disclosure because of their deliberative nature. Moreover, OMB’s assertions concerning the deliberative process privilege are misleading and illogical. That is, OMB’s comments fail to note that the deliberative process privilege protects internal and interagency communications from judicially compelled disclosure, an issue irrelevant to our report. The privilege in no way prevents agencies from voluntarily disclosing such information. OMB is thus arguing that because the scientific comments at issue might generally be protected from discovery in civil litigation, refusal to disclose them voluntarily in this specific context is necessarily consistent with the principles of sound science. OMB provides no citation or other support for this conflation of judicial and scientific procedures.
Stephenson concludes, “OMB fails to explain why certain scientific views should be given added consideration and protected from the critical scientific scrutiny all other comments will receive simply because the reviewers providing the comments are federal employees.”