Monday, February 06, 2012

House Hearing On EPA & Fostering Quality Science

Feb 3: The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Chaired by Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) held a hearing entitled, "Fostering Quality Science at EPA: Perspectives on Common Sense Reform – Day II." Witnesses included representatives from the Health Effects Institute; EPA's Science Advisory Board; American Chemistry Council; Regulatory Checkbook; Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Iowa; and the National Institute of Statistical Sciences.
    In a release from the Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) it was noted that the first hearing of this series, held last November, was intended to serve as an opportunity to evaluate EPA's research enterprise, but instead the discussion focused on hydraulic fracturing. The second hearing was intended to inform the subcommittee on structural and substantive concerns of external stakeholders related to EPA's research activities, but the witness panel was primarily made up of representatives from right-wing think tanks.
    In a brief opening statement, Chairman Harris said, "Unfortunately, the Environmental Research, Development and Demonstration Authorization Act, or ERDDAA, which is the statute authorizing R&D at EPA as well as the Science Advisory Board, was last reauthorized for fiscal year 1981. I think we can all agree that our fiscal, environmental, and economic priorities have changed dramatically over the last 30 years, and we should have statutes and a Congressional role in environmental policy that reflects these changes. As we have held nearly a dozen oversight hearings on specific EPA issues during this Congress, we have seen patterns of behavior that suggest the need for significant reforms.
    At day one of this hearing, we received testimony from several witnesses with decades of experience. . . They provided specific recommendations on reforming scientific activities at EPA, including the need to separate science and policy, to quantify uncertainties, to ensure greater transparency in the data, models, and assumptions used in regulatory decisions, to prioritize environmental problems and solutions, and to stop overly alarmist approaches to benefit-cost analysis."
    Representative Miller said, "I am pleased to see that we have some panelists with the experience and knowledge required to address in detail critical improvements that can make EPA's research enterprise more effective, efficient, and transparent. At the least, this is not just a panel of witnesses armed only talking points and flailing criticism meant to undermine or dismantle the one agency charged with protecting our citizens and the environment from unlawful pollution. . . As I have stated before, I approach this task hoping to work with my Republican counterparts in pursuing reforms that will lead to better research practices that help EPA accomplish its mission. . . I understand the amount of research, stakeholder conversations, and thought that must take place to write legislation as important and ambitious as the reauthorization of ERDDA."
    A GOP release indicated that witnesses repeatedly emphasized the need for greater transparency of scientific data and research results. Dr. Stanley Young, Assistant Director for Bioinformatics at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences said, "On publication of a paper, where research is funded by the EPA, the data should be made public. When the EPA proposes a regulation based on science, it should name the papers it is depending on and it should make data sets used in those papers publicly available. . . Claims are more likely to be valid and the resulting policy sensible.  Let normal science help in the vetting process.  Make the data available."
    Michael Walls, Vice President of Regulatory and Technical Affairs at the American Chemistry Council said, "At the heart of the problem in the Federal government's processes for assessing risks to environment and human health is the lack of a consistent, coherent, science-based framework that binds the agencies to an appropriate and transparent approach for weighing evidence, considering uncertainty, and keeping up with advances in the field. The processes for considering scientific information and data and the standards and criteria used in risk assessment need to be modernized and streamlined to meet both today's needs and greater challenges of the future."
    To demonstrate how the quality of science has eroded, Walls pointed to problems with the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessments of n-butanol and dioxin as well as with the evaluation of formaldehyde and styrene in the 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC). He said, "Why do we need to get this right? About 80% of IRIS assessments haven't been updated for more than 15 years. 90% are now at least 10 years old. Meanwhile, the science that informs our understanding of chemicals and exposures has continued to advance by leaps and bounds. That new science should surely inform our regulatory and policy decisions."
    The Chairwoman of EPA's Science Advisory Board, appointed in 2008 by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson summarized saying, ". . .we are supportive of these changes at ORD. More could be done, more is being done, but I believe, and our reports have indicated, that ORD is moving in the right direction." She said, "The best available science is essential to sound decision‐making, but is not the only aspect to sound policy decisions. What is "best available science"? While hard to provide a simple one‐size‐fits‐all definition, generally it is scientific results, conclusions, and technical information that has been produced using proven methods, that has been peer‐reviewed, where hypotheses are tested with objective and unbiased approaches, and that has support for its conclusions from other independent studies. EPA cannot possibly do all of the science needed by the Program Offices and Regional Offices. Some of this needed science is conducted within EPA, and some science is used from outside research to verify, supplement, and in general add to the collective body of knowledge used to inform a given decision. . ."
    She continued saying, "For purposes of maximum transparency and quality assurance, we usually advise the Agency not to include reports that have not been peer‐reviewed, or journal manuscripts in preparation or draft form but not yet published. As a researcher who has received funding from EPA and many other agencies, I have found that EPA has very high standards for data quality and assurance. . . It [EPA] is sorely short of resources to provide the capacity needed for all the science questions at the Agency, and yet there is no other agency where such environmentally focused and directed science is being done to fill the unique mission of protecting the public's health and the environment on which they depend. Investing in EPA science is a wise investment. . ."
    Access a Republican release on the hearing (click here). Access the Republican hearing website for links to statements,  testimony and webcast (click here). Access a Democratic release on the hearing (click here). Access the Democrats website for the hearing (click here).
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