January 10, 2012

GAO Releases New Report on IRIS

On Monday, GAO released its latest installment in what has become a somewhat regular series of reports on EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program.  In 2008, GAO warned that “the IRIS database was at serious risk of becoming obsolete because the agency had not been able to keep its existing assessments current, decrease its ongoing assessments workload to a manageable level, or complete assessments of the most important chemicals of concern.”  Although IRIS didn’t get a clean bill of health, this new report highlights some important improvements in the last few years. 

To begin, GAO praised EPA for its decision to start publishing comments that other agencies submit during interagency review of draft IRIS documents.  The interagency review process was first instituted during the Bush Administration and because it was originally run by OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), often resulted in long delays for draft chemical assessments.  One of the biggest problems was that it gave agencies like NASA, DOD, and DOE – whose budgets and operations could be impacted by further regulation of toxic chemicals – a privileged opportunity to shape EPA’s risk assessments.  Now that interagency review is run by EPA, which has better policies on transparency than OIRA, we at least get an opportunity to see the other agencies’ comments and judge them on their merits.

Of course, as we’ve said before,  the interagency review process ought to be scrapped.  The IRIS process needs to be streamlined and the best thing to do would be to combine the recursive review periods into a single comment period for all stakeholders, be they government agencies, chemical manufacturers, or public interest groups.  Doing so could help speed up the publication of new assessments. 

GAO doled out some real criticism of EPA’s speed and efficiency in publishing assessments.  Their concerns are clearly rooted in an appreciation for IRIS assessments’ importance in the overall process of writing rules to protect the public and the environment from toxic chemicals.  New data out of EPA indicate that toxic air emissions increased in 2010, bucking a four-year trend of declining emissions.  Clean Air Act rulemaking under § 112 relies heavily on IRIS data, so it’s important that new assessments be drafted and published quickly.

Unfortunately, EPA doesn’t have the resources it needs to do that.  GAO notes that 14 assessments have had to be put on hold and the agency won’t be able to resume work until additional resources are freed up.  Congress ought to give EPA on the order of about $100 million per year for the IRIS program, to really give it the funds it needs to crank out assessments for the many regulatory programs that need them.

GAO’s report included another interesting tidbit related to interagency review.  OIRA, with the encouragement of NASA, seems to be trying to reassert control over the interagency review process.  The details are fuzzy, but OIRA is allegedly holding hostage some documents that EPA wants to release, in hopes of getting EPA to relinquish control of IRIS interagency review.  In 2009, Lisa Jackson announced that EPA was taking control of interagency review.  It didn’t make sense for OIRA to have what amounted to a roadblock for new assessments.  But now OIRA’s trying to reclaim what amounted to ultimate power over the IRIS program.  It’s a pure power grab that, if successful, could significantly hamper EPA’s efforts to improve quality of life for millions of Americans exposed to toxic chemicals.

Finally, it’s worth noting that GAO gave EPA good marks on its efforts to improve the content of new IRIS assessments in the wake of last April’s NAS report on formaldehyde.  GAO reviewed two ongoing IRIS assessments and found that EPA is making headway toward creating assessments that are more clear and concise.  GAO recommended that EPA get either NAS or the agency’s own Science Advisory Board to review its plan for further progress.  The chemical industry has been trying to stall individual assessments of dioxin and every other chemical currently under analysis by demanding case-by-case NAS review.  But be careful to note that GAO does not suggest such a delaying mechanism; rather, GAO recommends that EPA ask “an entity with scientific and technical credibility” to review its plan for responding to the NAS/formaldehyde report.  The IRIS program is too important to put on hold.  Ongoing assessments should continue and should be revised to be as good as possible, recognizing that a completed assessment is just the first step in a long road to potential regulation.


Matt Shudtz, Policy Analyst, Center for Progressive Reform. Bio.

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