U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson rejected allegations Tuesday that his agency has relaxed environmental safeguards and favored corporate interests over those of the public.
Johnson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the Bush administration is "accelerating the pace of environmental protection," but his comments did little to satisfy Democrats who contend recent EPA decisions have undermined regulations that protect public health and the environment.
"These EPA rollbacks have common themes," said committee Chair Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. "They benefit polluters' bottom line and hurt our communities by allowing more pollution and reducing the amount of information about pollution available to the public."
Boxer said EPA has gone "too long without meaningful oversight."
Senator Barbara Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (Photo courtesy EPW)
"I want to send a clear signal to EPA and to this administration," Boxer warned. "No longer will EPA rollbacks quietly escape scrutiny."
The hearing focused on six specific decisions made by the agency last year, including a new rule that relaxes the reporting requirements for companies who release toxic chemicals into the environment, a decision to limit the role of agency scientists in setting air pollution standards, and a controversial plan to close several EPA libraries
Johnson told the committee that each of the topics "has been the subject of misinformation."
Stephen Johnson was sworn in as the 11th Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on May 2, 2005. (Photo courtesy DOE)
"Regardless of rhetoric, our environmental record is clear," Johnson said. "Each of the six actions or decisions that I have described will provide the American people with beneficial environmental results through efficiency, transparency, innovation, collaboration and the use of the best available science."
But other witnesses at the hearing disagreed with the EPA chief, including head of natural resources division of the Government Accountability Office, GAO, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.
The EPA "did not adhere to its own rulemaking guidelines" when it changed the reporting requirements of the Toxics Release Inventory, TRI, program, according to a new GAO report.
The TRI program provides the public information about toxic substances released in their neighborhoods - the changes allow some companies to avoid reporting releases of toxic chemicals.
"EPA may not have conducted a proper final agency review - this is one that seeks input from EPA's internal program and regional offices," said John Stephenson, GAO director of natural resources and the environment.
EPA crew probes drums to determine what type of hazardous waste they contain. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The EPA also failed to fully consider the "serious impacts on states" that rely on the information from the TRI program, Stephenson said.
More than 20 states filed comments opposing the changes to the program.
"This new rule will only result in denying some very important information to states and communities," said Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat. "The most troubling aspect of these rule changes is EPA's apparent unwillingness to listen."
Johnson said the agency "took into account all public comments," adding that the changes will save companies money without limiting information available to the public.
"Our focus was to make a successful program even better, to provide incentives to get people to reduce chemical emissions," Johnson said. "That is what we are trying to do."
Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said he was unconvinced and would introduce legislation to reverse EPA's changes to the program.
Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The EPA talks about burden reduction for industry, Lautenberg said, "but what about the burden for families and children? We cannot allow these changes to stand."
Boxer questioned why EPA decided in December to change the process for how it reviews and sets national clean air standards for pollutants like ozone and particulate matter.
According to the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and the science behind them every five years.
Previously, EPA scientists on the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee reviewed drafted policy recommendations and provided comments prior to its release for public comment. That will no longer be the case – a move that Johnson said streamlines the process and enhances the agency's ability to meet its deadlines for review.
But the move has drawn the ire of public health advocates, including the American Lung Association, who argue it puts politics above science.
"You took the science out of the clean air rule and stuck it at the end of the process," Boxer said. "Nobody is fooled by that."
The committee chair also questioned the EPA's reluctance to set a health standard for perchlorate as well as a proposal to remove lead from the NAAQS list, and a decision to reverse a policy on air toxics control.
The air toxics proposal affects how industrial plants are classified for purposes of regulating hazardous pollutants. It would reverse a Clinton-era policy, thus allowing sources of pollutants formerly classified as "major sources," which are beholden to stricter oversight, to be considered lesser regulated "area sources."
Air emissions can contain toxic pollutants. (Photo by Steven Haigh courtesy Advanced Industrial Resources)
Under the current policy, once a facility is a major source, it is always to be considered a major source.
That is unfair, according to Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican.
"It is like the IRS saying a salesman, making $150,000 and paying in the top tax bracket, [has] a bad year, making $35,000 the next year would have to pay the same tax," Bond said. "That is not an incentive to improve the environment."
Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, also defended the proposal, telling colleagues there is "much anecdotal evidence that suggest many plants would reduce their emissions of air pollution to avoid the expensive paperwork and other compliance costs of being treated as a major source."
Democrats said the policy allows facilities classified as major sources to increase their emissions, and Lautenberg criticized Johnson for pursuing a policy that has drawn opposition from seven of the agency's 10 regional offices.
"It doesn't look like you have much trust in the people in your regional offices," Lautenberg said.
Johnson said he has not made a final decision on the proposal, adding that the opinions of regional officials "matter a great deal."
The EPA chief also came in for sharp criticism over the agency's plan to modernize its library system.
As part of its plan, EPA has closed three regional libraries – in Dallas, Chicago and Kansas City – as well as its headquarters library and another library in Washington, DC that focused on chemicals and pesticides.
Boxer cited a series of internal e-mails from EPA staff showing that the plan is chaotic and that EPA employees had been ordered to throw away scientific journals.
Johnson said he was unaware of most of the allegations in the emails or the agency's decision to reduce hours at some of the libraries, prompting Boxer to say "either you are not getting the information or those emails are made up."
"They are not made up," Boxer said.
Regarding documents destroyed from the chemical and pesticides library, Johnson said the decision was taken because they were contaminated by mold caused by a flood.
"To my knowledge as of today we are not disposing of any documents," said Johnson, adding that the agency had destroyed some documents that were contaminated by mold caused by a flood in Washington, DC and other documents that "were not unique."
Johnson said the goal of the library plan is to digitize the agency's collections and make them more available to the public, saving money in the process. That view was supported by Republicans on the panel.
Senator James Inhofe is the Ranking Minority Member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (Photo courtesy EPW)
EPA's changes "have been met with some hysterical criticism," said Inhofe, despite ample evidence that the need for physical EPA libraries is declining.
At EPA's library in Dallas, "three people walked in per month over the past three years," Inhofe said. "At the Region 7 library in Denver, 20 people walked in during a seven month period just last year. At the Region 5 library in Chicago, most people who walked in were simply looking for directions. At the library here in Washington, EPA's own employee use has dropped 71 percent over the past two years. It's no wonder these libraries were closed."
Inhofe also questioned the relevancy of some items in the EPA libraries, asking the EPA chief how many copies of Dr. Seuss's book "The Lorax" the agency owns.
"Nine," Johnson replied.
Inhofe continued along this theme and had Johnson confirm that EPA libraries also offer the novel "Memoirs of a Geisha," a 1983 computer software guide, a book titled ""Fat Chicks Rule: How to Survive in a Thin-centric World" and several other titles.
Boxer called the exchange between Inhofe and Johnson "very entertaining," but said it did little to relieve her concern about the library plan.
"You're reading those notes very well, but you're unaware of what's happening in the agency," Boxer said.
"I am amazed the administrator of the EPA would know what books are in the libraries," Boxer added. "While we now know that you can get a Dr. Seuss book, unfortunately, according to your own staff in one of the libraries 600 to 700 linear feet of the chemical library collection was discarded."
Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association, told the panel her organization is concerned that the EPA's plan can at best be "described as convoluted and complicated."
Burger said, "We are concerned that years of research and study about the environment could be lost forever."