Thursday, June 12, 2008

Frustration Mounts With Integrated Risk Assessment System Delays

Jun 12: House Science & Technology Committee, Investigations & Oversight Subcommittee, Chaired by Representative Brad Miller (D-NC), held a second hearing on EPA’s Integrated Risk Assessment System -- IRIS. The hearing was entitled, Toxic Communities: How EPA’s IRIS Program Fails the Public. Witnesses testifying at the hearing included representatives from: Jerome Ensminger, retired from the Marine Corps; Center for Public Environmental Oversight; Natural Resources Defense Council; and the Medical University of South Carolina.

In an opening statement Representative Miller expressed his ongoing frustration and said, "The glacial pace at which EPA is completing assessments of chemicals has real consequences for public health and tragic consequences for individuals and their families. Completion of an IRIS assessment is just the first step in the process protecting people from dangerous exposures to toxic chemicals. With an IRIS assessment in place, it is easier to deal with the cleanup of chemical contamination of the air or water, to adopt safer practices in the workplace and to consider steps to regulate toxic substances that can harm our children and our communities."

The Government Accountability Office’s recent report on IRIS [See WIMS 4/29/08] concluded that EPA’s process for initiating and completing IRIS assessments resulted in proposals that are in preparation for more than 5 years, with some assessments taking more than a decade. Miller said, "The new process that EPA and OMB instituted just this past April will add additional years to IRIS assessments. The years of added study and discussion regarding IRIS assessments come on top of a regulatory process that is burdened with very time consuming steps for a complete risk assessment, cost-benefit analyses, and internal and external reviews as laid down in Executive Orders and statute. Even after a regulation is finalized, it can be challenged in court and sent back to the Agency for revision. When finally established a new regulation usually includes some time, often many years, for the affected parties to “transition” away from the practices that are being regulated."

Miller cited the fact that EPA has been working on a revised TCE assessment since 1989. Two years ago, following interventions by NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and OMB, the National Academy reviewed EPA’s draft IRIS assessment and the science available on TCE and said that: “evidence on carcinogenic risk and other health hazards from exposure to trichloroethylene has strengthened since 2001. … Priority should be given to finalizing the risk assessment so that risk management decisions can be made expeditiously.”

Miller said, "Expeditiously? Expeditious is not a word that describes this situation. GAO estimates that EPA will not complete their TCE assessment until 2010 – that’s twenty one years from their original start date. If they complete the assessment in 2010, we will still be years away from regulatory action. People will have been exposed to a known toxic substance for decades, for a generation, while the government engages in study after study. Have we become so obsessed with getting the science right that we have lost sight of our real goal -- protecting public health? Or, is getting the science right a pretext for obstruction? This system defies common sense. It is broken, and it is condemning people to future health problems."

On June 11, Miller sent a letter to the White House asking for all documents related to the long-delayed assessment of TCE. Miller said, "Politics should have no role in deciding what toxic effect a chemical may have. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has effectively blocked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from posting new health assessments of hazardous chemicals by prolonging the assessments because of inevitable uncertainties about the interaction of chemicals and human health. . ."

Access the hearing website for extensive background and links to all testimony (click here). Access a release and link to Representative Miller's letter to OMB (click here). [*Toxics]