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US EPA advances rollbacks while coronavirus pandemic rages

Work continues on chemical risks, climate, and what data regulators may consider

by Britt Erickson , Cheryl Hogue
April 9, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic is upending education, business, and social activities. But it isn’t slowing the Trump administration’s efforts to diminish US Environmental Protection Agency regulation.

Despite requests from advocacy groups and members of Congress, the EPA has not postponed meetings or extended comment periods related to pending actions on several controversial chemicals and other public health matters. The agency is forging ahead with public meetings using virtual platforms even when external advisers have other obligations related to the novel coronavirus that preclude them from participating.

Earlier this month, 14 members of Congress who chair committees in the House of Representatives sent a letter to the White House asking for extra time for the public to provide input to the EPA and other federal agencies.

“The disruptions caused by COVID-19 will deprive citizens, local communities, and other stakeholders the opportunity to engage with agencies on these major policy revisions and many other rulemakings,” they wrote. The lawmakers urged the EPA to extend the comment period for a proposal that would narrow the type of scientific data that the agency may consider for regulations. The agency extended the comment period by 30 days, but some lawmakers say that isn’t long enough because of the unprecedented change people are facing in their everyday lives.

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EPA employees are also not immune to pandemic effects. Like much of the federal government, the agency is encouraging all its employees to work remotely. An EPA spokesperson tells C&EN that as of April 6, the agency had been notified that 17 of its employees, who are scattered across the US, have confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV2. One worker from the EPA office in Philadelphia died because of the disease.

“EPA’s prime directive should be to focus on public health, while simultaneously protecting its frontline employees,” says Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney who is now executive director of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in a statement. “Amidst this emergency, public health protections remain an afterthought at EPA.”

Here is where the EPA now stands on several regulatory actions affecting the chemical industry.

Evaluating trichloroethylene and asbestos risks

Photo shows bilingual asbestos warning signs taped onto plastic on a door.
Credit: Shutterstock
The EPA is moving ahead with its evaluation of the risks of asbestos from current uses while ignoring legacy uses, such as construction materials in older buildings.

Environmental groups spoke out during a virtual meeting of the EPA’s Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC) held March 24–27 to review a draft risk evaluation of the commonly used solvent trichloroethylene (TCE).

“I must open my remarks by expressing utter dismay at the agency’s decision to hold this meeting in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jennifer McPartland, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an environmental advocacy group, said during the public comment period of the TCE meeting. Holding the meeting during a pandemic places a real burden “on individuals and communities across the country, including SACC members, who as a result are unable to fully and meaningfully participate today,” she continued.

The EPA released its draft evaluation of TCE on Feb. 21, giving its advisory committee just one month to review the document before the peer review meeting. The agency found that many uses of TCE pose health risks to workers and consumers. Even so, environmental groups claim the EPA underestimated the risks because it ignored fetal heart defects, the most sensitive health effect.

Prior to the TCE meeting, EDF scientists urged the EPA to postpone it. “Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the time frame EPA provided for getting meaningful expert review of this important document was already questionable. Now it is simply untenable,” Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at EDF, wrote in a March 16 blog post.

TCE is one of the first 10 chemicals that the EPA is evaluating under 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act. The agency faces a June deadline to complete the 10 evaluations. The EPA acknowledged before the pandemic that it may not meet that deadline for all of the chemicals, but it is still pushing forward.

On March 30, the EPA released its draft risk evaluation of asbestos, the ninth of the 10 assessments. The agency concluded that asbestos poses risks to the health of consumers and workers, including workers who handle the substance in the chlor-alkali industry, but did not consider the risks of asbestos that still exist in older products. The EPA plans to hold a virtual meeting of its chemical advisory committee on April 27–30 to peer review that assessment.

Leaders of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an advocacy group, are urging the EPA to delay the asbestos peer review meeting. “Even under normal circumstances, this schedule would be extremely challenging,” they write in a March 30 letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. It is “essential for leading asbestos experts from the scientific and medical communities to carefully examine EPA’s findings and supporting analyses,” they add. Many leading asbestos experts are medical doctors or university faculty who are currently consumed with other challenges related to the pandemic.

Assessing pesticide effects on endangered species

Drawing shows chemical structure of the pesticide carbaryl.

The EPA released a new approach for assessing the risks of pesticides to endangered species on March 12, the day after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The agency is under a court order to evaluate the risks of four pesticides to endangered species by 2021.

The EPA has already used the new approach to evaluate two of the pesticides—carbaryl and methomyl. It released those evaluations in conjunction with the new approach last month. The evaluations show that each pesticide is likely to harm more than 1,000 endangered species.

Drawing shows chemical structure of the pesticide methomyl.

The agency intends to hold a webinar on April 16 to discuss the two draft evaluations and to provide the public with an opportunity to ask questions about the new approach. It is accepting comments on the two evaluations until May 16.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the suit that led to the court order, claims that the new approach fails to protect endangered species and is designed to allow pesticides to remain on the market. The pesticide industry welcomes the overhauled approach, saying it relies on real-world pesticide use data rather than estimates based on maximum-allowed values.

Relaxing greenhouse gas controls

Photo shows a modern oil rig in the US.
Credit: Shutterstock
A significant source of methane emissions is oil and gas extraction.

The agency is pushing ahead with its rollback of methane emission regulations for new oil and gas wells despite a lack of review by its science advisers. The EPA proposed that deregulatory move in August.

The EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which consists of outside experts, voted March 30 not to analyze the EPA plan because the board lacked enough time to conduct a review before the agency’s self-imposed deadline to finish the rollback of the rule later this year.

The effort to overturn this methane rule is part of the Trump administration’s larger push to eliminate greenhouse gas emission controls instituted by the Obama administration. In March, the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration weakened another Obama climate change rule: one that sets fuel economy standards for cars and trucks.

Excluding evidence for regulation

Drawing shows an abstract image of data.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

EPA leaders are eager to finalize a controversial plan that would restrict which scientific data the agency can consider when controlling pollution or regulating chemicals.

The proposal would limit the EPA to considering only studies for which the underlying data are publicly available—a particular challenge for epidemiological studies based on medical records. The agency says it’s making the change to boost the transparency of science used for regulation.

After the EPA received hundreds of thousands of comments, most critical of the original 2018 plan, the agency in March released a supplemental version. The revision addressed some of the concerns raised by the public.

At the same time, the supplement broadened the scope of the plan to also require publicly available data for “influential scientific information”—information that might not be directly related to a matter being considered but is nonetheless “information the agency reasonably can determine will have or does have a clear and substantial impact on important public policies or private sector decisions.”

The EPA initially asked for the public to provide comments on the proposal by April 17. Environmental activists, Democrats in Congress who oppose the proposal, and others complained this left too little time to provide thoughtful comments as the coronavirus pandemic grips the world. The EPA subsequently extended the deadline to May 18.

The Trump administration is pushing for a final version of this regulation soon. Reportedly, the administration wants to ensure that this rule doesn’t get stopped by a new Congress in 2021 under a little-used law that allows legislators to review and overturn a regulation within 60 days after it becomes final. Because the Republican majority in the Senate is likely to support this Trump administration change, the regulation faces virtually no danger of intervention by the current Congress if issued in the next few months.

Changing cost-benefit calculations

Photo shows meshed toothed gears imprinted with the words BENEFITS and COST.
Credit: Shutterstock

After months of work, the EPA is about to release a draft revision to its guidelines for determining the costs and benefits of pollution controls. These calculations are critical to agency decisions on whether and how to regulate.

The agency’s Science Advisory Board recently formed an Economic Guidelines Review Panel that will soon begin its peer review of draft changes to EPA’s guidelines, with a virtual meeting scheduled for April 23.

The agency says it wants these guidelines to “reflect the most current, peer-reviewed and established practices in the economics profession.” Critics fear the Trump administration wants to use this down-in-the-weeds change to hamper the EPA’s ability to protect human health and the environment.

Most notably, the agency is calling into question whether it should consider side benefits of rules: reductions in a pollutant or pollutants that aren’t the target of a regulation but nevertheless have significant health impacts.

For instance, the Trump EPA is attempting to replace an Obama administration requirement that power plants slash their emissions of mercury, which is toxic to the nervous system. It’s planning to do so by recalculating the health benefits from the rule. A team of economics scholars critiqued that plan in a recently published study, saying the EPA analysis had “deep flaws.” The researchers argue the agency ignored scientific evidence and best practice in economics (Science, 2020 DOI 10.1126/science.aba7932).

Whatever economic guidelines the EPA finalizes, they will influence the agency’s actions for years to come.


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