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Summary of Hearings on Data Access, Data Preservation and Data Publication Issues

(6-12-2009)

  • June 9, 2009: Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Subcommittee on Oversight Joint Hearing on “Scientific Integrity and Transparency Reforms at the Environmental Protection Agency”

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Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Subcommittee on Oversight Joint Hearing on “Scientific Integrity and Transparency Reforms at the Environmental Protection Agency”
June 9, 2009

Witnesses
Panel 1:
The Honorable Lisa Jackson
Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency

Panel 2:
John B. Stephenson
Director, Natural Resources & Environment, United States Government Accountability Office

Panel 3:
Dr. Francesca Grifo
Senior Scientist and Director, Scientific Integrity Program, Union of Concerned Scientists
Dr. Kenneth P. Green
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
Dr. Lynn Goldman
Professor and Principal Investigator, Johns Hopkins National Children’s Study Center

Committee Members Present
Sheldon Whitehouse, Subcommittee Chairman (D-RI)
James M. Inhofe, Full Committee Ranking Member (R-OK)
Barbara Boxer, Full Committee Chairwoman (D-CA)
Tom Udall (D-NM)
George V. Voinovich (R-OH)
Frank J. Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD)
John Barrasso (R-WY)
Thomas R. Carper (D-DE)

On June 9, 2009, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight held a joint hearing to investigate the changes in scientific integrity and transparency that have taken place at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since the start of the Obama administration. Three panels of witnesses gave testimony on the recent reform, starting with the newly appointed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

The chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) opened the hearing by describing the loss of the EPA’s integrity and credibility under the previous administration, where “science took a backseat to politics… and this proud agency suffered an embarrassing string of court defeats with rulings literally mocking the agency’s arguments.” He then praised the EPA’s recent overhaul of the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which assesses harmful chemicals found in the environment and the effects these chemicals can have on human health. Under the previous administration, the IRIS assessment of new chemicals was a complicated process that could take five or six years to complete one review. In the words of Whitehouse, there were “conflicts of interest” in the research used to make judgments on policy, and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was given “unknown secret influence” over the EPA. The new IRIS method gives the EPA ultimate power and is more streamlined with a goal of completing each chemical review in twenty three months. Jackson stressed that science is a rigorous process of peer review to reach an accurate and impartial consensus upon which policy can be made.

EPW Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) also applauded the improvements that Jackson has made in air quality, perchlorate, and children’s health issues. She condemned the previous administration’s practice of “putting the polluters at the witness table,” and thanked Jackson for her openness. Ranking Member of the Oversight Subcommittee, John Barrasso (R-WY), was not as impressed by the new administration’s oversight of the EPA. He probed Jackson about her role as EPA Administrator compared to the role of the White House Energy and Climate Czar Carol Browner, who is not confirmed by or held accountable to the Senate. He was disturbed by a New York Times article that accused Browner and Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board, of having secret meetings with auto industry officials about vehicle fuel economy. He suggested that the EPA was not even considered in these meetings, when it should be the Senate approved EPA Administrator making the decisions on emission standards. Jackson responded that the accusation of secrecy was a misunderstanding, and while she may not have been at the meetings, high ranking members of her staff were included in these talks.

As part of the EPA reform, Jackson emphasized the necessity to keep science independent from politics. This issue of politics interfering with science was a primary concern, resurfacing multiple times during the hearing. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) noted a survey of EPA scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2008. This survey found that 783 scientists thought EPA policies prohibited them from discussing their findings with the media or publishing their research in peer reviewed journals. Later, Dr. Francesca Grifo, a witness on the third panel from the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted the same survey that found 889 scientists (60%) felt politics interfered with science. Grifo stated that it is impossible for science and politics to remain completely separate, but scientists should be able to express their opinions as private citizens and not representatives of the agencies they work for. This would facilitate greater transparency of the decisions the EPA makes. She also called for a stronger whistleblower law to protect scientists, declaring her support for the bill introduced by Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

A related issue is the problem of credibility of environmental versus industry research. While EPW Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) confirmed with Dr. John Stephenson that the GAO did not distinguish between environmental and industry scientists, Barasso discussed with Dr. Kenneth Green the overall trend in politics of treating some scientists as biased depending on where they receive funding. Green said that it is a general belief that industry science is tainted and cautioned the committee that good science takes time for deliberation and peer review. Chairman Whitehouse also mentioned tainted science that stems from scientists adjusting their data to get a profit, citing the American Tobacco Institute and the American Lead Institute as two examples. Whitehouse called for industry to rid itself of these anti-science practices. Dr. Lynn Goldman also referred to these troubles, mentioning a situation where a consulting firm was hired to oppose the EPA’s research of a pesticide without doing any of their own research.

Several committee members inquired how far the reformation of the EPA would go, introducing issues they wanted the new administration of the EPA to address. First, Whitehouse wanted to ensure that the EPA would not forget the funding cuts that science and the EPA took in the last eight years. Jackson replied that this will be a priority for the Inspector General once the position is filled. Udall focused on ways to increase transparency by querying if the Data Access Act of 1998 would be addressed to help the flow of data between industry and government. Currently, industry has access to all of the data collected by agencies, but the agencies are not able to acquire industry research. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) wanted to make sure the Clean Water Act would be taken into account in the permits issued by the EPA for mountaintop removal coal mining. He also noted that improvements at the EPA were already positively affecting Maryland. Jackson responded that the EPA will review each project’s effect on water quality and work towards better transparency on this issue. Lastly, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) noted Superfund cleanup and indicated he hoped that this would continue as an important project of the EPA.

Inhofe questioned Jackson about the way the EPA handles advances in science that change interpretations, referencing scientists who believed anthropogenic greenhouse gases were causing global warming in the 1990’s but have since switched their viewpoints. Jackson replied by first emphasizing that the majority of scientists in the field believe that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the cause of global warming. She confirmed that the EPA keeps an open mind in regard to new research. Inhofe also questioned the EPA’s support of the Waxman-Markey bill, presenting a letter signed by most of the Senate Republicans. The letter asked the EPA to conduct a new assessment of the bill, taking into account a slower, more reasonable time estimate for the expansion of nuclear energy and the implementation of the carbon capture and sequestration process. Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) also pushed the letter, noting, “Modeling is only as good as its assumptions.”

On the second witness panel, Dr. Stephenson praised the new IRIS, but called for more transparency about the role the OMB would play.  He also remained skeptical of its goal to complete chemical reviews in twenty three months. When Senator Thomas Carper (D-DE) asked what possible delays would keep the EPA from meeting their target timeline, Stephenson recommended that the EPA employs early planning, eliminate redundancy in the IRIS process, and create a more streamlined process to keep on target. He commented that they would have to wait and see how well the EPA does in the next year.

Testimonies from the witnesses and a video archive of the entire hearing can be found here.

-RHP

 

Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by Rachel Potter, 2009 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on June 12, 2009.

 
 

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