INSIGHT: Congressmen charge scientific misconduct at EPA

20 October 2011 15:25  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

Congress presses White House on scientific integrityWASHINGTON (ICIS)--Key members of Congress this week demanded a White House explanation of what they call scientific misconduct in Obama administration regulatory actions on chemicals and offshore energy development, charging that scientifically unsound policies are undermining the US economy.

In what can only be called a stinging letter to top White House science advisor John Holdren, Republican Senators David Vitter of Louisiana and James Inhofe of Oklahoma were joined by Republican Representative Darrel Issa of California in charging that the administration’s scientific credibility has collapsed and multiple federal agencies are guilty of “scientific misconduct”.

“Specifically, we are concerned with data quality, integrity of methodologies and collection of information, agencies misrepresenting publicly the weight of scientific ‘facts,’ indefensible representations of scientific conclusions ... and fundamental notions of ‘sound’ science,” the three members said.

Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Vitter serves on that panel and also on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and has launched a series of investigations and hearings probing various Obama administration policies and actions.

They noted that Holdren, who serves as director of the White House office of science and technology policy, and President Barack Obama promised that “sound science would be the pillar of this administration”.

However, they contend, “Public trust in federal scientific work is waning and the academic community has gone so far as to call the situation a crisis,” citing a paper by one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) own outside advisors.

“We’ve seen facts manipulated and science ignored across the administration while they’ve developed policies with huge negative effects on the economy,” Vitter said in releasing the letter to Holdren.

Inhofe charged that “we continue to uncover more and more examples of faulty science being used as the justification for policies and increased regulations that will destroy jobs and harm our economy”.

The three congressmen also cited cases of what they said were “important examples of agency scientific misconduct”.

In particular, they challenged the scientific basis of the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which is supposed to assess the health effects of chemicals in commerce and form the basis for their regulation.

But IRIS and EPA have come under attack by the chemical industry and government scientists outside of EPA.

Vitter and the other authors of the letter noted an April 2011 report by a panel of independent scientists at the National Research Council (NRC) which found that “EPA’s scientific work did not support EPA’s scientific conclusions”.

The NRC is part of the respected National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a private non-profit institution chartered by Congress in 1863 to provide expert advice to the federal government.

The NRC study, Inhofe said, “found the problem to be one that is recurring at the agency”.

According to the NRC, the letter relates, the study “found that EPA’s draft assessment [of formaldehyde as a carcinogen] was not prepared in a logically consistent fashion, lacks clear links to an underlying conceptual framework, and does not sufficiently document methods and criteria used to identity evidence for selecting and evaluating [chemical] studies”.

The NRC analysis concluded, they note, “that if the methodologic issues are not addressed, future assessments may suffer from the same general problems”.

The US chemical industry views the EPA IRIS programme in much the same light as the NRC.

In testimony before Congress on IRIS, American Chemistry Council (ACC) president Cal Dooley noted that “in recent years, IRIS frequently has been criticised for failing to meet high standards of scientific inquiry, transparency and quality”.

Dooley said that IRIS and EPA have two main problems.

First, he said, “IRIS does not reflect modern scientific methods or 21st century knowledge about how chemicals interact in the body at different levels of exposure”.

“Rather, IRIS continues to rely too heavily on outdated assumptions formulated in the 1970s,” he said.

“Second, there is little independence in the programme’s peer review process,” he said, adding: “EPA controls each step of the review process and ultimately decides which recommendations from peer review groups to act upon and which to ignore.”

"A solid scientific foundation is fundamental to having confidence in the quality of chemical assessments conducted by EPA," said ACC spokesman Scott Jensen in reaction to the congressional challenge.

"Unfortunately," Jensen added, "many of the very important assessments produced by the agency - that could impact huge segments of the economy - have demonstrated a pattern for the selective application of science, and an unwillingness to address concerns raised by experts from the science community."

The members of Congress and ACC are not alone in their assessment of EPA’s scientific qualifications.

The nonpartisan US Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in July 2011 testimony that it had earlier found “shortcomings in EPA’s IRIS process that limited the agency’s ability to complete timely and credible IRIS assessments”.

GAO, the audit and investigative arm of Congress, said that those shortcomings “contributed to our decision to designate the IRIS programme as a high-risk area”, meaning at high risk of irrelevance.

In another challenge to the administration’s scientific integrity, Inhofe and his congressional colleagues cited a report by the Interior Department’s own inspector general saying that in imposing an offshore drilling moratorium in US waters of the Gulf of Mexico last year, “the department inappropriately manipulated a 30-day report by the National Academy of Engineers” (NAE), which is also part of the National Academy of Sciences.

The inspector general’s report “showed that not only had Interior violated the Information Quality Act, but there was direct involvement by the White House ... to manipulate the summary document in violation of peer-reviewed protocol”.

Vitter noted that “The investigation revealed blatant political influence on what should have been an independent scientific assessment [in order to] inaccurately represent the views of a particular team of scientists”.

The result of that political interference in the scientific process, said Inhofe, was an unwarranted moratorium on Gulf of Mexico drilling, “resulting in a slowdown in permitting and loss of production, jobs and economic activity”.

The moratorium was imposed by the Interior Department in the wake the 20 April 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and massive oil leak.

Inhofe and Vitter charged that the “scientific misconduct by the Obama administration” in justifying the moratorium has had a far reaching and damaging impact on the US economy, citing the sharp decline in Gulf exploration and development and a consequent loss of some $6bn (€4.3bn) in private sector spending and more than 11,000 jobs.

They said that the unsound science involved in EPA’s formaldehyde assessment has put at risk some $145bn worth of annual business related to sales of formaldehyde and derivatives, along with some 4m jobs in that industry and payrolls of nearly $130bn.

The senators and representative asked Holdren to reply to their allegations of scientific misconduct by 2 November so that Congress can decide “what steps to take to advance science to its proper place and ensure that ‘sound science’ wins the day”.

Rick Weiss, spokesman for Holdren’s office, said that Holdren had not yet received the letter from the congressmen and consequently could not comment.

Multiple other EPA and other federal agency regulatory actions have been challenged on scientific grounds, including the Health and Human Services Department’s decision to list styrene as a human carcinogen, EPA’s decision to authorise the sale of E-15 ethanol gasoline blends, and the agency’s highly controversial climate change ruling that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a pollutant that must be regulated and reduced.

The latter EPA decision on CO2 and other greenhouse gases has been challenged in more than 75 federal lawsuits by various industries and multiple state governments.

Most recently, the EPA’s own inspector general held that the agency failed to meet its own internal scientific requirements when it ruled in late 2009 that greenhouse gases pose a risk to human health.

 ($1 = €0.73)

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy


By: Joe Kamalick
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