Eye on OIRA: Meddling with IRIS Again, Now on Arsenic

Matt Shudtz

Feb. 25, 2010

Add arsenic to the list of carcinogenic chemicals that will see delayed regulation from EPA as a result of OMB’s meddling. Last week, after almost seven years’ work, EPA released a draft assessment of the bladder and lung cancer risks posed by arsenic in drinking water. But the release of the final arsenic risk assessment is being delayed while EPA’s Science Advisory Board is asked to take yet another look at agency scientists’ work. As Jonathan Strong wrote in InsideEPA (sub. req'd) last week, the recursive review by SAB is “emboldening” activists who want to delay any potential new drinking water regulations.

Demanding external peer review of EPA scientists’ work on just about anything is a standard tactic industry uses to bide time before they have to shell out the money to clean up the messes they’ve made. Witness Sen. David Vitter’s hold on President Obama’s nominee for the head of EPA’s Office of Research and Development (the people responsible for IRIS assessments). Senator Vitter kept the hold on Dr. Anastas for months, until Administrator Jackson agreed to send the long-delayed formaldehyde IRIS assessment to the National Academy of Sciences for Review. That guaranteed Sen. Vitter’s constituents in the formaldehyde industry at least another 18 months of regulatory delay – more, if they can pull a few choice words from NAS’s eventual report and claim that they undermine the draft assessment.

A Senate hold on a presidential nominee isn’t the only way to ensure delay, though. Strong encouragement from people within the Executive Office of the President is another, and that’s just what the opponents of arsenic regulation got. In October 2008, EPA released an early draft of the arsenic IRIS reassessment for “interagency” review. OMB weighed in, as usual, with a set of comments that ask some highly scientific questions. As we’ve noted many times before in this space, OIRA’s small staff, with their expertise in economics and general regulatory policy and responsibility for overseeing the entire Executive Branch, should not be delving deep into the pre-regulatory science at one agency.

(Comments on IRIS assessments labeled as being from OMB often are actually an amalgamation of comments from other federal agencies that want to remain anonymous. Indeed, the varied tone of the OMB arsenic comments might lead to that conclusion here. OIRA does not further President Obama’s goal of transparent governance by encouraging anonymous comments on EPA’s scientific work, but I digress.)

Scientific comments from OMB are a problem in themselves, but the new trend we’re seeing – with EPA’s arsenic assessment, perc assessment, and others – is OMB pressing EPA to send draft assessments out for external peer review. When Administrator Jackson announced a new process for updating IRIS assessments as one of her first acts, she promised that recursive external peer reviews of the assessments would no longer be the norm because they result in unnecessary delay. Yet, OMB continues to pressure her staff to get SAB or NAS to double- and triple-check the work of EPA’s highly qualified scientists. As is increasingly becoming the case, they’ve capitulated on the arsenic assessment.

According to Strong’s InsideEPA article, on Friday, a coalition of 17 industry groups is scheduled to meet with Dr. Anastas of ORD to discuss the arsenic assessment. No doubt they are annoyed that EPA sent the draft assessment to SAB without asking for industry’s input on the charge to the peer reviewers, an opportunity they were hoping to use to turn this new review into a broad ranging and time consuming excursion into every area of arsenic science. Given President Obama’s promises of regulatory transparency and scientific integrity, and given that we’re now in the public comment stage of arsenic’s IRIS revision process, the materials presented to Dr. Anastas and notes from Friday’s meeting should be posted in the public docket.

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