updated 4/29/2008 1:33:55 PM ET 2008-04-29T17:33:55

A White House budget agency is "actually dictating" which chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency can assess for health impacts, a congressional investigator told a Senate committee Tuesday.

John Stephenson, the Government Accountability Office's director of natural resource programs, told the Senate Environment Committee that the White House Office of Management and Budget not only is closely involved in the chemical assessments but "actually dictating which assessments that the EPA can undertake."

Stephenson was describing the findings of a new GAO report that concluded that White House demand for broad interagency involvement in EPA's toxic chemical risk assessments is undermining the agency's ability to make timely, science-based conclusions on the cancer risks and other health impacts of many chemicals.

Democratic senators accused the Bush administration of injecting politics into the assessment.

"By placing politics before science, the Bush administration is putting the public in harm's way," committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said at the hearing.

"By law the EPA must protect our families from dangerous chemicals," added Boxer. "Instead, they're protecting the chemical companies."

The EPA's risk assessment process "never was perfect," Boxer said in an interview Monday. "But at least it put the scientists up front. Now the scientists are being shunted aside."

Bush administration responds
At issue is the EPA's screening of chemicals used in everything from household products to rocket fuel to determine whether they pose serious risk of cancer or other illnesses.

EPA Assistant Administrator James Guilliford said that outside agency and White House involvement in the chemical reviews is beneficial and that the agency has "a process that ultimately results in a science-based result."

"Ultimately at the end of the day, it's EPA's decision," said Guilliford, who oversees the EPA's pesticide and toxic substance programs.

The White House said the GAO is wrong in suggesting that the EPA has lost control in assessing the health risks posed by toxic chemicals.

"Only EPA has the authority to finalize an EPA assessment," Kevin Neyland, deputy administrator of the White House budget office's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote in response to the GAO. He called the interagency process "a dialogue that helps to ensure the quality" of the reviews.

GAO report: Policy means delays
The administration's decision to give the Defense Department and other agencies an early role in the process adds to years of delay in acting on harmful chemicals and jeopardizes the program's credibility, the GAO concluded.

A review process begun by the White House in 2004 and imposed formally by the EPA earlier this month is adding more speed bumps for EPA scientists, the GAO said in its report.

GAO investigators said extensive involvement by EPA managers, White House budget officials and other agencies has eroded the independence of EPA scientists charged with determining the health risks posed by chemicals.

Many of the deliberations over risks posed by specific chemicals "occur in what amounts to a black box" of secrecy because the White House claims they are private executive branch deliberations, the report said.

The Pentagon, the Energy Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other agencies — all of which could be severely affected by EPA risk findings — are being allowed to participate "at almost every step in the assessment process," the GAO said.

Those agencies, their private contractors and manufacturers of the chemicals could face new restrictions on using the chemicals and be saddled with major cleanup requirements, depending on the EPA's scientific determinations. The risks data is widely used by EPA and states to determine levels of regulation and cleanup standards.

After years of stops and starts, the GAO said, the EPA has yet to determine carcinogen risks for a number of major chemicals such as:

  • Naphthalene, a chemical used in rocket fuel and manufacturing a wide range of commercial products, including mothballs, dyes and insecticides. It is a major source of contamination at many military bases. The EPA wants to determine if it should be reclassified from a “possible” to “likely” human carcinogen. A long-standing dispute with the Pentagon over the chemical prompted the White House in 2004 to initiate a new EPA policy requiring more interagency involvement in assessing the health risks of a chemical. “Six years after the naphthalene assessment began, it is now back at the drafting stage,” said the GAO.
  • Trichloroethylene, or TCE, a widely used industrial degreasing agent and a common contaminant in air, soil and both surface and ground water. The EPA in 2001 issued a draft assessment that TCE is “highly likely to produce cancer in humans.” Interagency reviews have concluded more outside studies are needed. “Ten years after EPA started ... the TCE assessment is back at the draft development stage,” the GAO said.
  • Perchloroethylene, or “perc,” a chemical widely used in dry cleaning fabrics, degreasing metal and making chemical products. The EPA began its risk review of perc a decade ago and an interagency review was completed two years ago. Since then the assessment has been in limbo because of a dispute among senior EPA officials over what the cancer risk assessment should be. The dispute has prevented the proposed assessment from being forwarded to the National Academy of Science for peer review.
  • Formaldehyde, a colorless, flammable gas used to make plywood and other building materials, which the EPA has been reviewing since 1997 to determine if should be upgraded from a “probable” to a “known” carcinogen. The EPA does not expect to complete that review for another two years.
  • Royal Demolition Explosive, or RDX, a chemical explosive used in munitions and classified as a possible human carcinogen. The chemical is known to leach from soil to groundwater. The EPA began a risk assessment of the chemical in 2000 but has made minimal progress, the GAO said.

Environmentalists say these chemicals have been widely found at military bases and Superfund sites and in soil, lakes, streams and groundwater.

The findings, after an 18-month investigation by the congressional watchdog agency, come at a time of growing criticism from members of Congress and health and environmental advocates over alleged political interference in the government’s science activities.

Last week, a confidential survey by an advocacy group of EPA scientists showed more than half of the 1,600 respondents worried about political pressure in their work.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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