Former EPA Chief: Assessment Delays Are Inevitable
National Journal
September 8, 2009

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office added the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical assessment process to its list of programs at high risk of waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement because of the delays associated with completing assessments. In one of its reports, GAO noted that some of the chemicals that have been in the process the longest are likely to cause cancer or other serious conditions.

NationalJournal.com’s Michelle Williams recently spoke with former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman about the process and if the problem is as serious as it seems.

NJ: In January, GAO said it was alarmed about delays with the chemical risk assessment process. One chemical has been in the assessment process for about almost two decades. Should these assessments take this long?

Whitman: It’s hard for me to judge. I’m not a scientist. My initial reaction, and I think anybody’s, would be no, of course not. But you have to remember that in order to have a credible assessment, you have to see concentration, and that takes time. There’s no way to hasten that. Unfortunately, you just have to wait until something’s been around long enough to get good, scientific readings to understand what the levels are, what the safety levels are, how does a particular chemical actually translate in tissues, does it concentrate in tissues or does it dissipate — it’s a very, very complicated process. Were there more money, were there more scientists, could you move some things through faster? Perhaps. But some of these things you can’t rush. There’s just no way to do it.

NJ: One recommendation that GAO has made to help improve the process is to take the best science available.

Whitman: That’s fine, and you can make interim steps, but then all of a sudden you find out that there’s a fatal flaw in that. And you have people who have been overexposed or very sick, and then everybody wants to sue. That’s the other problem we have here…. There is a kind of insurance, in fact, now that many higher-level people in government buy for themselves personally to protect themselves against these suits because the government doesn’t always cover all their costs. You know, you’re asking a scientist to go out on limb and say something’s safe and they’re not 100 percent sure. And they’re worried — I mean in good conscience, they’re worried about what the impact could be on the public, and they’re also worried because they don’t know what will happen to them.

NJ: But in the particular case for dioxin, whose assessment has been going on for almost two decades, the agency has characterized it as a likely human carcinogen.

Whitman: The thing you have to be really careful about is not to let the fact that there is some scientific uncertainty be used as an excuse for a political agenda, which would be not to regulate a certain chemical or not to move against a certain industry. And that’s where it really gets tricky, because you have these issues that do take time and there are some things you can’t rush, other things can be moved forward faster. But then there are times when people use that as an excuse to hold up taking any action because of the economic consequences.

And unfortunately what we find when that’s happening is that down the road, the economic consequences are much worse because we have to undo damage that could have been prevented. As we all know, prevention is less expensive than dealing with something after the fact.

But, on the other hand, there have certainly been instances where the agency has moved very quickly on something — and I’m always trying to remember the name of that chemical that they used on apples out in Washington state — and virtually killed an industry only to find out later that in fact it wasn’t the problem that they thought it was. So it’s a double-edged sword here.

NJ: So do you think the assessment backlog is as serious as modernizing the financial regulatory system, which is also on GAO’s high-risk list?

Whitman: The backlog — clearly you want it addressed, because these things are issues that could have enormous health consequences to people, and that ends up costing lots of money. Not to mention what it does to people’s quality of life, and that should be first and foremost. But if you want to be just crass about it, it ends up costing lots of money to undo the damage. So you want to get things moved through as expeditiously as possible. It’s just that with some of these scientific things, you can’t have a really reasoned consensus and understanding to know how far you go on a regulation except with a test of time.