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Government Concentrates

February 2, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 5

Chief U.S. arms inspector says Iraq had no WMD before war

The U.S. chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David A. Kay, resigned last week to be replaced by former UN weapons inspector Charles Duelfer. Kay's criticisms of prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) swiftly sent the Bush Administration into a defensive posture. Kay says it is unlikely that large stockpiles of WMD will be found. "I think they gradually reduced stockpiles throughout the 1990s," largely because of the UN weapons inspections, he says. And, he adds, it was a serious intelligence failure not to have determined that WMD did not exist before the war. He believes the intelligence community failed because it lacked human intelligence sources. The CIA, he says, failed to make clear to Congress that its assessments were based on limited information. Countering Vice President Dick Cheney's response that coalition forces uncovered mobile bioweapons labs, Kay says the labs were designed to produce hydrogen for weather balloons or for rocket fuel. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who last February argued forcefully before the UN Security Council urging preemptive war, now concedes that Iraq may have no longer had such weapons. "If they had any, where did they go?" Powell asks. Publicly, President George W. Bush is still saying that "it's very important for us to let the Iraq Survey Group [which Kay headed] do its work so we can find out the facts and compare the facts to what was thought." The Washington Post, however, reports that the White House is likely to acknowledge it was mistaken about Iraq's WMD if none are found within the next several months. Democratic lawmakers are calling for an aggressive inquiry into the Administration's handling of prewar intelligence.


Countries seek trade sanctions against U.S.

Seven countries and the European Union asked the World Trade Organization on Jan. 26 to allow them to impose millions of dollars in trade sanctions against the U.S. The move comes in the dispute over a U.S. law known as the Byrd amendment, named after Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who tacked it onto a 2001 federal spending bill. Under that law, foreign companies found to be selling goods at artificially low prices get hit with tariffs by the U.S. government--then the money they pay gets transferred to the U.S. competitors who complained about the low prices. WTO has ruled that this antidumping payment law violates international rules, and an arbiter set a Dec. 27, 2003, deadline for the U.S. to change the Byrd amendment (C&EN, June 23, 2003, page 15). Now that the deadline has passed without congressional action on the issue, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the EU, India, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea want WTO to levy sanctions equal to the millions of dollars that are passed to U.S. companies each year under the Byrd amendment.


Chemical safety board to look at dust blasts

Last week, the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board announced that it was broadening an investigation into explosions caused by dust particles. A year ago, a blast at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant in North Carolina, which killed six workers, was found to be triggered by dust from the production of rubber products. The combustible dust had been drawn into a false ceiling and ignited under circumstances that the board says are unclear. Over the past year, two other large accidents due to dust accumulation have occurred in industrial production settings, the board notes. Consequently, it has begun investigating U.S. dust explosions that have taken place over the past several decades to determine whether current codes and standards are adequate. A preliminary report from the review is expected in June.


EPA models and data are now available on Web

EPA has long used computer and mathematical models as part of its regulatory activity. The agency employs them to simulate what happens to pollutants in the environment, to estimate the effects of contaminants on health and on ecosystems, and to evaluate the costs and benefits of regulations. But the public has not been privy to exactly what goes into the "black box" of environmental models or just how they crunch data to produce results that regulators rely on.


The agency is changing this situation. On Jan. 28, EPA began posting on its website information about 90 models that it uses most frequently. One model, called BATHTUB, is used to study nutrient enrichment of water reservoirs. Another is named ABEL and is employed by enforcement officials to evaluate corporations' claims that they cannot afford to comply with environmental standards, clean up pollution, or pay penalties. And the model dubbed ECOSAR uses structure-activity relationships to predict the toxicity of new industrial chemicals to aquatic organisms, including fish, invertebrates, and green algae.

In addition to unveiling the database on its models, EPA released draft in-house guidelines on how the agency will develop, evaluate, and apply models used to make regulatory decisions.

"By providing access to our tools and methods, we can improve the public's understanding of how sound science is used to make environmental decisions," Acting Deputy Administrator Stephen L. Johnson says.

J. Paul Gilman, EPA assistant administrator for research and development, says these moves help transform the black box of environmental modeling into a transparent Plexiglas box that gives the public a window into the workings of these models. Gilman notes that only two other federal agencies--the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Information Administration--have made public their guidelines on how they develop, evaluate, and apply models.

The database of EPA's most frequently used models is available at Gilman says the agency plans to add more models to the database.


NASA defends space plan, gets money to boost scientists' pay

NASA will be faced with some difficult decisions as it realigns itself to meet the challenges laid out in President George W. Bush's plan for human space flight, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said during testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee on Jan. 28. The committee questioned O'Keefe for nearly 90 minutes about the details of the President's plan, including how the agency will implement it with the proposed resources and where the outlined $11 billion in reallocated funding would come from. O'Keefe evaded the requests for specifics by noting that the details of the plan are outlined in the President's 2005 budget, scheduled for release on Feb. 2. O'Keefe did note, however, that the majority of the reallocated funds would come from "human space flight related programs." In other action, NASA will be able to pay its scientists and engineers more in the future; the House passed legislation (S. 610) intended to stop the "brain drain" at NASA and give the agency more flexibility to recruit and retain a highly skilled workforce.


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