President Obama's decision to abandon U.S. EPA's new air pollution standards for ozone early this month sparked angry reactions from environmentalists and made headlines nationwide.
But Obama's administration made another controversial regulatory move the same day that few noticed: EPA delayed the release of its assessment of health risks posed by trichloroethylene (TCE), according to multiple sources, including an EPA official.
More than 10 years in the making, the health assessment is a step that might lead to standards on TCE, a common industrial solvent that is suspected of causing cancer.
EPA's delay frustrated green groups who accuse the White House of sidelining its environmental agenda to placate industry as Obama's re-election campaign ramps up. Environmentalists also say the White House is meddling in EPA's Integrated Risk Management System (IRIS) program, which drafted the TCE report and is supposed to be driven by science.
The heart of problem, as environmentalists see it, is the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a corner of the White House Office of Management and Budget where regulations die.
"It seems like we're at the beginning of a pattern of a willingness at the White House to sacrifice human health for votes that likely aren't there," said Jason Rano of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). "If they are putting pressure on folks to slow down IRIS assessments -- through unofficial channels -- that's a serious concern."
IRIS is tasked with assessing the environmental and human health risks posed by chemicals. Its findings are the foundation of EPA chemical regulations and frequently face industry opposition.
During George W. Bush's administration, there were allegations about White House interference with IRIS. Those problems, as well as the IRIS's laggard pace, led the Government Accountability Office to include it on its annual "high risk list" of troubled federal programs this year (Greenwire, Feb. 16).
Obama's EPA has sought to reinvigorate IRIS. It hired Vincent Cogliano from the World Health Organization to direct the program and brought in Paul Anastas, known as the "father of green chemistry," to oversee it as assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Research and Development.
Anastas pledged this summer to implement recommendations for IRIS put forth by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) (E&ENews PM, July 12).
The TCE assessment was widely seen by environmentalists and industry alike as particularly important.
Often used as a metal degreaser, TCE is among the most common contaminants at waste sites scheduled for cleanups in the Superfund program. Among notable TCE-contaminated properties is Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where an estimated 750,000 people were exposed to the chemical.
The IRIS draft assessment, which was deemed scientifically sound by an NAS panel, found TCE to be carcinogenic and to have significant effects on the nervous, reproductive and immune systems.
The delayed TCE assessment has some environmentalists recalling Bush's IRIS program.
"Given its recent record of catering to the chemical industry," said Daniel Rosenberg of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "we are concerned that the White House is resorting to the Bush administration's approach of interference to delay the release of health assessments."
Frustration over the TCE assessment is not limited to advocacy groups. A high-ranking EPA official, granted anonymity to speak freely, said many agency employees are concerned about outside influences.
"That would frustrate anybody," the official said.
But the EPA official noted that unlike the Bush administration, the Obama White House does not appear to be trying to tamper with the scientific underpinnings of IRIS reports.
"We've seen a slowing down but no interference on the scientific conclusions," the official said.
The same day the TCE assessment was supposed to be released, the IRIS draft reviews of n-Butanol and dioxane -- two widely used solvents -- disappeared from the IRIS website. They were later returned, but their removal was noticed by watchdogs and EPA has since extended the public comment period for both substances because of the delay.
All of this has led some to speculate that the White House is putting all final IRIS assessments on hold -- rumors that EPA quickly sought to squelch.
"EPA remains committed to finalizing IRIS assessments in a timely manner while ensuring that the best possible science is used to protect human health and the environment," the agency said in a statement to Greenwire.
The agency said it is also "on track to issue several additional assessments by the end of September."
Concerns over White House chief of staff
There are other signs that the White House is standing in the way of EPA's efforts on chemicals, watchdogs say.
They are blaming Bill Daley, the White House chief of staff, for a shift in the administration's environmental priorities. A former executive at J.P. Morgan Chase, Daley was brought into the White House after Republicans romped in last year's midterm elections in an effort to repair its relationship with the business community.
Rena Steinzor of the Center for Progressive Reform said Daley and OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein -- who is known for his academic work on the risks of over-regulation -- have sought to move regulatory efforts to a back burner.
"There's been a sea change in direction and an empowerment of Cass Sunstein since Daley took over," Steinzor said. "It's mystifying."
As evidence, Steinzor and others point to EPA's proposal to add bisphenol A (BPA) and a handful of other substances including some flame retardants to its "Chemicals of Concern" list under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Adding the substances would allow EPA to collect additional safety information on the chemicals and could potentially pave the way to new standards for the substances.
The proposal has been sitting at OIRA for nearly 500 days, making the agency review more than a year overdue. That led Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to dispatch their staffs to meet with OIRA at the end of August. The lawmakers also sent Sunstein a letter this month urging him to complete the review (E&E Daily, Sept. 13).
At a hearing this week, Sunstein faced questions about his office moving too slowly on regulations. House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that with many rules, "by the time the rule comes out, it's outdated and it doesn't make any sense."
Sunstein acknowledged the OIRA should move more quickly in reviewing some proposals. After the hearing, though, he insisted that OIRA is working well with EPA (E&ENews PM, Sept. 14).
"We have a very good cooperative relationship with EPA," he said.
Reporter Emily Yehle contributed.