At an Oct. 27 hearing, lawmakers in the US House of Representatives scrutinized the Environmental Protection Agency’s program for reviewing new commercial chemicals before they enter the market. That program is facing allegations that its managers downplayed safety concerns to get chemicals onto the market quickly under pressure from the chemical industry.
The agency is taking steps to address the alleged problems in the new-chemicals program, Michal Freedhoff, the EPA assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. For one, Freedhoff has told the agency’s Office of Inspector General that her office will cooperate in an investigation into the process for new chemical reviews. Also, the staff of the new-chemicals office is undergoing scientific integrity training, she said, and the EPA is creating new procedures for elevating and resolving disagreements on scientific matters.
The new-chemicals program is severely understaffed, Freedhoff told lawmakers at the first House oversight hearing on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) since Congress revised that law in 2016. “We estimate that we have less than 50% of the resources that we need to review and approve new chemicals the way Congress intended us to.”
“I was actually shocked to learn that the previous administration never asked Congress for any meaningful new funding to reflect the new responsibilities in the 2016 law,” Freedhoff said.
The revised TSCA allows the agency to offset up to 25% of some of those costs through fees from chemical companies, she pointed out. “We’ve only recouped about 13% of those costs from fees, not 25%. And these shortfalls have implications that are important to all stakeholders.”
“Everyone’s been working on a shoestring for a long time now,” Freedhoff said of the program. She warned that it will take time to get it “back on track.” President Joe Biden has asked Congress to fund an additional 90 full-time workers for the program in fiscal year 2022, she added.
A number of Republicans on the panel accused the Biden EPA of failing to allow new compounds to enter the market quickly. Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia, the top Republican on the subcommittee, said suppliers and vendors have told him that the agency has a significant backlog of new chemical notices awaiting action.
“It seems like EPA is stifling innovation and creating barriers to commerce” for new chemicals, he said.
McKinley criticized Freedhoff for a recent memo she sent to members of her staff. The memo instructed them to take more time off, not be at meetings on Fridays, limit public engagement, and improve meetings by streamlining topics, and not take their work home, he said.
Some private employers are adopting similar practices to help relieve the stress of overworked employees.
McKinley told Freedhoff, “You want to work less. So it’s no wonder that the EPA chemical backlog is expanding.”
Freedhoff countered McKinley’s accusation about a backlog with data from the administrations of Donald J. Trump and Biden. In 2017, the Trump EPA announced that it had cleared out a backlog of premarket notices for new chemicals, which stretched to more than 600 cases after the 2016 revisions to the TSCA. At that time, the agency called its 308 pending cases “a typical active workload.” As of mid-October this year, 319 new chemical notices were pending at the agency, Freedhoff said. Of those, 58 were waiting for industry responses to EPA queries, she added.
In another line of questioning, Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) asked Freedhoff about the EPA’s recent decision to hold off enforcement of a Trump-administration ban on phenol, isopropylated phosphate (3:1), a persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic substanceused as a flame retardant, plasticizer, and additive.
The EPA took the action after importers, distributors, and retailers of electronic and other goods told the agency earlier this year that the ban would disrupt supply chains for a raft of items including phone charges and tractors, Freedhoff said.
Peters said he did not want the agency to set a precedent for putting a TSCA regulation on hold when affected companies fail to raise concerns before the agency finalizes it.