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EPA chemical health hazards program has 55-year backlog of work, report says

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Eighteen months after the Environmental Protection Agency announced reforms to its controversial process for evaluating health hazards posed by dangerous chemicals, significant problems continue to hamper the program and leave the public at risk, according to a new report by a nonprofit research group.

The agency has fallen years behind in meeting its statutory requirements to profile at least 255 chemicals and assess their potential links to cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. That delay has effectively halted numerous regulatory actions that would protect the public, according to the report by the Center for Progressive Reform, a public health and environmental protection group. “[The Obama administration has] been so busy reacting to the right wing and fighting off crisis after crisis that it’s been difficult for them to see this pattern of regulatory failure,” said Rena Steinzor, president of the center and a University of Maryland law professor.

The Government Accountability Office, Congressional committees, and other experts have criticized the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) in recent years. Under President George W. Bush’s administration, critics say, the agency’s chemical assessment efforts ground to a near halt because of interference by other federal agencies, unwarranted delays, and a lack of transparency.

The GAO warned in a 2008 report that the IRIS database “is at serious risk of becoming obsolete.” In January 2009, the GAO added the EPA’s method for assessing and managing chemical risks to its list of “high-risk” areas requiring attention.

Database incomplete, outdated

Created in 1985, the database has become indispensable for regulators, public interest groups, and tort lawyers. But the EPA has fallen far behind in conducting chemical assessments, and, if the current pace continues, it will take 55 years to get through the backlog, the report says.

The net result of years of delay, observers have charged, is that the IRIS database, which lists the risks associated with certain chemicals, is incomplete and largely outdated — a serious problem given that the database underpins much of the regulatory action by not only the EPA, but also state and local governments.

The EPA said it was reviewing the new report. “Under the leadership of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the IRIS program has been reinvigorated with a new streamlined assessment development process,” the EPA said in a statement. “Significant progress has been made toward addressing both new assessments and updating others.”

Democrat Brad Miller, chairman of the investigations panel of the House Science Committee, says IRIS was “badly broken in the Bush administration” and is still too slow and cumbersome. “We can’t wait for clusters of rare cancers or birth defects to tell us the consequences of a chemical exposure,” added Miller, a North Carolina lawmaker who held a hearing on IRIS in June 2009.

Responding to the GAO’s 2008 report, Bush-appointed EPA Assistant Administrator George Gray defended the agency’s handling of the program and said delays occurred in part because “today’s IRIS assessments are much more sophisticated, complex, and of higher scientific quality than at any other time in the program’s history.” The Bush administration sought to streamline the IRIS process, while striking a balance between transparency and “protecting the deliberative process,” Gray said in comments attached to the 2008 report.

Gray did not respond to an inquiry from the Center for Public Integrity.

Input from other agencies

The new report by the Center for Progressive Reform criticizes a 2004 policy giving other federal agencies advance input on the IRIS chemical assessments while keeping their comments — and any changes made because of them — secret as internal executive branch deliberations. Some federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, could face steep costs if a chemical assessment led to new regulation or compelled a massive cleanup effort.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson instituted reforms in May 2009, giving the EPA — not the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — more control over the assessment process, making written comments from other agencies public, and shortening the target timeframes for assessments.

But those changes have produced “only modest progress,” the Center for Progressive Reform says, while the database remains “woefully incomplete.” The report identified the interagency review process as a key concern, saying that the review system had greater transparency but did not eliminate the practice of giving other agencies an early review.

The continued involvement of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) – an office within the OMB that reviews federal regulations — provides an avenue for interference and delay, the center’s Steinzor said. “This is pure science, and OIRA doesn’t need to be involved,” she said.

The EPA also continues to focus too heavily on a few complicated, high-profile chemical assessments while neglecting others that would take less time, the report says. Many of the chemicals covered under environmental laws governing air pollutants, drinking water contaminants, and hazardous waste sites are not listed in IRIS. For example, the agency has yet to profile 32 of the 188 hazardous air pollutants specifically named by Congress in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.

The nine assessments that the EPA completed in 2009 represent an improvement over the four completed in 2006-07, the report says. But to improve regulation of toxic chemicals, it says, the EPA must allocate more resources to IRIS, eliminate excessive outside reviews, and tackle both quick-hit and high-profile assessments.