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EPA's Scientific Integrity

Former Bush Administration official calls for open chemical assessment process

by Cheryl Hogue
May 12, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 19

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

CONGRESS CONTINUED its investigation into the state of scientific integrity at EPA last week. A Senate panel questioned the current and former heads of the agency's Office of Research & Development (ORD) under President George W. Bush. Senators focused on a controversial new policy that gives federal agencies facing cleanup liability more, and sometimes secret, opportunities to sway EPA's health assessments of pollutants.

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Senators heard opposing views from George Gray, the current ORD chief who oversaw EPA's adoption of that policy, and Paul Gilman, who headed ORD from 2002 to 2004.

Gray defended the secrecy requirement, telling a Senate Environment & Public Works subcommittee that it "encourages a free and frank exchange" among agencies. Gray added, "At the end of the new assessment process, we are very transparent about what we have done" because EPA makes public the scientific rationale for its chemical health assessments.

But Gilman said that federal agencies that pollute should offer comment in public—rather than in secret—on EPA's scientific assessments of pollutants. A public comment process provides "the transparency that improves credibility" of EPA's chemical assessments, said Gilman, now the chief sustainability officer at Covanta Energy, which operates waste-to-energy facilities.

The Government Accountability Office says the policy's secrecy provisions limit the scientific credibility of those EPA assessments (C&EN, May 5, page 10).

In addition, the new secrecy policy elevates the views of other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, over those of EPA scientists, said David Michaels, a George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services professor, to the subcommittee.

"We would never allow the EPA, in secret, to delay military activities. Why should we permit a system in which DOD, in secret, has the ability to block EPA efforts to protect human health and the environment?" asked Michaels, who served as an assistant secretary of energy during the Clinton Administration

At the hearing, Chair Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said EPA staff scientists and outside scientists who serve as advisers to the agency were asked to testify. But they declined, saying they feared retaliation from EPA if they spoke out publicly about what they see as political interference in the agency's science, he said. Whitehouse told C&EN that one of the scientists said to Senate aides, "I don't want to be the next Deborah Rice."

EPA removed Rice, a toxicologist for the state of Maine, from an external peer-review panel examining the agency's draft health assessment of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a family of flame retardants. The agency also redacted Rice's comments from the peer-review report.

The agency took these actions against Rice after the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, complained to Gray about Rice's "appearance of a lack of impartiality," based on her testimony to the Maine legislature about the dangers of one of the PBDEs (C&EN, April 14, page 35).



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