GOP Provision in Omnibus Spending Bill Will Add Extra Review for IRIS Arsenic Assessment, Cause Delay

by Matt Shudtz

December 20, 2011

The environmental community breathed a small sigh of relief last week when congressional negotiators released a spending bill without policy riders that would have prevented EPA from advancing rules on greenhouse gases, endangered species, and coal ash.  One rider that was included will slow EPA’s efforts to assess toxic chemicals’ potential health effects under the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) process.  Although the rider was substantially revised from a version floated in the House in July, it will still delay important public health protections on arsenic and other toxic chemicals.

Ever since the National Research Council released its review of the IRIS formaldehyde assessment in April, the chemical industry and its GOP allies have been arguing that the IRIS program should be stopped until EPA revamps its process for assessing chemical risks.  The NRC committee went beyond its charge of assessing EPA’s draft formaldehyde assessment and included some significant criticisms regarding the form of recent IRIS assessments and EPA’s transparency about its methods for developing assessments.  But even though NRC’s complaints were serious, the reviewers were careful to state explicitly that EPA should not delay even the formaldehyde assessment as the agency works toward implementing NRC’s recommendations for improving the IRIS process.

The chemical industry’s congressional backers like to embrace the NRC report, but conveniently omit the part about not stalling current assessments. These industry backers shoehorned some particularly extreme riders into the budget bill debated in the House in July.  Among other things, they could have stopped EPA from issuing air toxics regulations or Superfund cleanup decisions based on existing IRIS values, making the current database useless and preventing enforcement of many existing rules.

Fortunately, the IRIS rider that Congress approved  last week was far less obtrusive into EPA’s broader regulatory policies – it does not impact enforcement of clean air regulations or Superfund cleanups. It still requires EPA to submit IRIS’s draft assessment of inorganic arsenic (and potentially two other chemicals) to NAS for review. This sounds reasonable on the face, but in practice is meant to cause delay for the arsenic assessment as well as for IRIS’s work generally.  The American public can ill afford these delays in toxic chemical assessments.  As we’ve described in several white papers over the last few years, the slow development of IRIS assessments has left the database with gaps in coverage that hamper EPA regulators’ work on clean air rules, Superfund cleanups, and drinking water standards.  What IRIS really needs from Congress is a boost in funding and staff, not restrictions on its work.

Version presented in House in July

Omnibus bill passed Friday and Saturday

EPA must report to Congress on its implementation of the NRC recommendations by 12/1/2011

Report now due by 3/1/2012

No funds shall be used to take any administrative action based on any draft or final assessment that does not incorporate the NRC/Formaldehyde recommendations

Not included

No funds shall be used to take any administrative action based on any draft or final assessment which has not fully documented implementation of NRC/Formaldehyde recommendations

For draft assessments released in FY2012, EPA shall include documentation of implementation of NRC/Formaldehyde recommendations

EPA shall contract with NAS to conduct up to 3 reviews of upcoming assessments; one must be for inorganic arsenic, NAS to choose others

Same, but with 18-month time limit on NAS reviews

No use of draft arsenic values for any Federal regulatory or permitting decisions

Not included

No funds shall be used for action on any proposed rule, regulation, guidance, goal or permit, issued after 5/21/2009, that would result in the lowering or further lowering of any exposure level that would be within or below background concentrations in ambient air, public drinking water sources, soil, or sediment

Not included

Tagged as: IRIS
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Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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