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Science at the Environmental Protection Agency (5-26-04)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting environmental health and safety through its regulatory, enforcement, and remediation authority.  Ideally, these functions are based upon "sound science" research carried out by the agency's laboratories and other external facilities.  However, over the years the perception has developed that EPA's policies lack a strong scientific foundation.  In order to better understand why the agency has fallen short, the National Research Council performed an assessment of EPA's Office of Research and Development in 2000. The resulting report, Strengthening Science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Research Management and Peer Review Practices, suggests several ways the agency could improve.  The report stimulated legislation, yet to be passed, to improve the quality of science and the overall position of the EPA within the federal government.

Most Recent Action

The United States EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley told the press on May 13th that she will investigate the Bush administration's proposed mercury rule. Independent Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords led the call for the investigation, aruging that the rule may violate the Clean Air Act. Jeffords and six Democratic Senators have also voiced suspicions that industry interests are prioritized in Bush's policies.

Following this trend, on May 25th, several former EPA officials criticized the Bush administration's policy development methods at a press conference organized by Citizens for Sensible Safeguards. "The micromanagement of the EPA from the White House is something I've never seen to this level," said Bruce Buckheit, former director of the EPA Air Enforcement Division. Buckheit and other former EPA employees said that the administration favors industry interests and has taken unprecedented and "potentially illegal" actions. Criticisms involved several issues such as the Clean Air Act New Source Review program and the administration's regulation of hazardous air pollutants. A White House Council on Environmental Quality spokesperson defended the administration's actions, stating that they balance environmental and economic concerns. (5/26/04)

The White House Office of Management and Budget has released a report mandated by Congress that evaluates the responsiveness of agencies in Fiscal Year 2003 to public requests for correction of information under the 2001 Federal Data Quality Act (FDQA). It also suggests changes to improve the scientific accuracy and transparency of agencies.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is thoroughly discussed in the report, even though a relatively small number (13) of requests for changes in EPA data were made that year. The only major policy questioned under the FDQA during 2003 is an EPA rule regulating stormwater pollution that exempts oil and gas well construction sites. The rule was challenged by several Democratic senators and Independent Senator Jim Jeffords (VT) based on the EPA's initial estimates of oil and gas drilling. The EPA rejected the request for change, and plans to reevaluate stormwater regulation of oil and gas drilling operations are set for 2005.

The OMB report also cites instances of denial and inaction of the Interior Department when confronted with information correction requests. The report concludes that no definitive conclusion can be made regarding the success of the FDQA, although improved information flow is one apparent outcome. Some interests, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told E&E Daily that they are disappointed with the response of agencies to the law (5/17/04).

For years the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has used an agency-wide Science Inventory to catalog current and past science products and activities. On November 18th, the Agency unveiled a searchable, Web-based format for the database that the public can use. The EPA plans to update the inventory as new information becomes available, making it a dynamic tool for planning, managing and enabling collaboration on environmentally related science that supports EPA's overall mission. The Science Inventory is on the Internet at http://www.epa.gov/si. Users can conduct keyword searches or can search within nine cross-cutting science topics: aging initiative, contaminated sediments, ecological assessment tools, genomics, tribal science, children's health, cumulative risk, environmental justice and non-indigenous species. (11/26/03)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced their new Human Health Research Strategy on November 3rd. This plan will further the Agency's mission to protect public health by identifying and prioritizing the scientific research that will be conducted over the next five to 10 years. Of interest to geoscientists is the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP), a long-term research effort to monitor the conditions of estuaries, streams and lakes in select geographic regions. Once the conditions of these resources are known, the Agency can better plan its environmental protection and restoration activities. Another ten-year plan details the research strategy for global change research which will put more emphasis on assessing the consequences of global change on human health, water quality, air quality and ecosystem health. (11/26/03)

On September 9, 2003, the Bush Administration indicated for the first time that it would support the restructuring of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during House Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs hearing on the Elevation of the EPA to Departmental Status. The hearing (the 5th to date on this matter) focused on two bills: H.R. 37 introduced by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and H.R. 2138 introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Doug Ose (R-CA). H.R. 37 would simply transform EPA into the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), while H.R. 2138 would introduce some structural changes. The latter would create three Offices (Policy, Planning and Innovation; Science and Information; and Implementation, Compliance and Enforcement), and establish a Bureau of Environmental Statistics (BES) to collect and analyze environmental data.

Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horinko and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton, speaking on behalf of the Administration, acknowledged that the new structure would be more manageable and allow for better coordination. They also said that a BES would allow EPA initiatives to be based upon more sound science -- a weakness for which EPA has been criticized in the past. Subcommittee Ranking Member John Tierney (D-MA), on the other hand, voiced concerns that EPA's "new" mission as written in H.R. 2138 would limit EPA's jurisdiction to "unreasonable environmental risk," and that EPA elevation could become mired in a restructuring debate. Additional misgivings arose about decreased public access to information and about a new set of coordination problems that might result from H.R. 2138. A longer discussion of the hearing is available on the AGI hearings summary page for this issue. (9/12/03)

Previous Actions

On May 15, 2003, Rep. Doug Ose (R-CA) introduced H.R. 2138 seeking to reorganize the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), raise it to cabinet-level status, and rename it the Department of Environmental Protection. The bill states that the current "stovepipe organization results in the agency's inability to effectively address cross-media environmental protection. The agency lacks adequate oversight and coordination of its offices to ensure that science, policy and implementation are integrated throughout the agency." To solve these problems, the legislation would reorganize the EPA from offices directed at pollution source and polluted media, to offices focused on broad goals, such an Office of Policy, Planning, and Innovation; an Office of Science and Information; and an Office of Implementation, Compliance, and Enforcement. The science office would contain a Bureau of Environmental Statistics to quantitatively analyze the state of the environment. The legislation was referred to the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources, and Regulatory Affairs, which Ose chairs. According to E&E Daily, the bill is expected to be placed on the calendar for mark-up in the near future. (5/22/03)

The EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently released a report entitled Science to Support Rulemaking that looks at the agency's use of science in regulatory development. The report examines 16 cases of rulemaking, the majority related to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, to identify the science supporting the agency's action. As stated in the executive summary: "Science played an important role in the rules, but that role was not always clear. Even though the rules included in this pilot study depended on hundreds of scientific documents, because the role of science often was not presented in a manner consistent with the conventions of communicating scientific information, it may be unclear what science was critical and why." The study also looked at the source of the science used in the rulemaking, noting that a majority of it was from EPA contracts and the private sector. Also discussed was the fact that the science used in rulemaking often was not independently peer reviewed. At the end of the report are comments submitted by divisions within EPA on the report's findings. (1/6/03)

In January 2003, two bills relating to science at the EPA were reintroduced from the previous Congress. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Chairman of the House Science Committee, reintroduced legislation (H.R. 37) that would elevate the EPA to Cabinet-level status and rename it the Department of Environmental Protection. The bill was referred to the Committee on Government Reform. Rep. Mike Bilirakis (R-FL) introduced bipartisan legislation (H.R. 347) to reinstate the Office of Ombudsman within the EPA. The ombudsman position was merged with the Office of the Inspector General in April of 2002, resulting in the resignation of the then-current ombudsman in protest, and, according to Greenwire, "an increased belief on Capitol Hill that the EPA is bent on squelching any criticism." By creating a new Office of Ombudsman that reports directly to the EPA Administrator, Bilirakis hopes to allow the ombudsman to operate more independently. (2/3/03)

On May 21, 2003, the Senate unanimously passed S. 515, reinstating the ombudsman at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and strengthening the independence of the position. Sponsored by Senator Michael Crapo (R-ID), the bill includes a number of measures to allow the ombudsman to act as a more autonomous arbitrator, such as being appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate while reporting to the EPA administrator. The ombudsman appointee must not have held a position at the EPA for one year prior to the appointment and must have previous ombudsman experience. The measure also allows the ombudsman to issue subpoenas, hold public hearings, and speak freely with members of Congress. The companion bill H.R. 347, sponsored by Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-FL), is currently in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials. Passage of S. 515 coincidentally occurred on the day that EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announced she would resign from her position in late June to spend more time with her family. (5/22/03)

On June 6, 2003, the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs held a hearing on two bills addressing the elevation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to departmental level status: H.R. 37 and H.R. 2138. Introduced by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), H.R. 37 would elevate the EPA to department status with no changes in structure or authority. H.R. 2138 was introduced by subcommittee chairman Doug Ose (R-CA) and not only would elevate the agency's status but also would alter its structure as well as create a Bureau of Environmental Statistics. H.R. 2138's proposed new structure for the EPA consists of three Under Secretaries overseen by the Department Secretary, one of whom would be in charge of the Science and Information Division. The proposed Bureau of Environmental Statistics would operate within this division, though the bill may stipulate that it have an independent director. The subcommittee heard from scientists, professors, and policy experts, but no administration witnesses. (6/24/03)

Background

Following the release of the National Research Council's (NRC) report entitled Strengthening Science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Research Management and Peer Review Practices, the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing on July 13, 2000, to discuss the report's conclusions. The recommendations of the report included the creation of a high-level administration position to coordinate and oversee all scientific activities at the EPA. The administrator would be responsible for all aspects of the transfer of sound scientific and technical information into the agency's proposed policies or regulations. The report also details several ways the EPA Office of Research and Development could better maintain research program continuity, enhance research leadership and strengthen scientific communication within the agency and with outside entities. The report stressed the need for a peer-review policy to promote separation, objectivity, and independence between the reviewer and the project decision maker.

In response to the recommendations of the report, legislation was introduced the last two Congresses to elevate the EPA to a cabinet-level position and create a high-level position to oversee research and science. The goal was to infuse science into the regulatory process, instead of adding science to regulations as an after thought. A central science administrator would not only facilitate the improvement of science in general, but also address many of the smaller-scale administrative and communication problems plaguing the agency. Other reports analyzing EPA practices have been issued by Resources for the Future, EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB), and the General Accounting Office .

Additional information on Science at the EPA from the 107th Congress.

Sources: General Accounting Office, Washington Post, Environmental Protection Agency, Federation of American Scientists, E&E News, Greenwire, Thomas website, House Science Committee and hearing testimony.

Contributed by Charna Meth, 2003 Spring Semester Intern, Emily R. Scott, 2003 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, Ashley M. Smith, 2003 AGI/AAPG Fall Semester Intern and Bridget Martin, 2004 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's Update on Science at the EPA for the 107th Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program at govt@agiweb.org.

Last updated on May 26, 2004


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