Friday, October 8, 2010

Obama Administration Revisits Scientific Integrity Policy

Over a year and a half ago I reported on the Obama Admininstration's call for Agencies to develop scientific integrity rules, and even asked for the public's input. The main activist group representing government scientists also called for a formal policy.  Just last week I noted that the Department of Interior has finally issued their rules, though OMBWatch, the Office of Management and Budget watchdog organization, felt they didn't go far enough. Now the National Commission set up earlier this year to monitor and evaluate the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico has come out to say that the White House could have done a better job.

So where is the Administration on developing these guidelines, and why is it taking so long?

Remember that the rationale for developing scientific integrity rules in the first place was because there were so many complaints about how the Bush Administration had suppressed science that conflicted with its political goals.  As Francesca Grifo from the Union of Concerned Scientists says in a recent edition of "All Things Considered" on NPR: 
The point is that you don't want to have political appointees using science as a cover and changing the science so that it appears that what they're doing is science-based when it's not. And that's certainly what we had eight years of. And we really were hoping, with this administration, that that was not what we're going to see. 

The problem seems to be one of the trials of getting new policies through the federal bureaucracy, including the OMB, and the fact that this administrations agenda has been been quite full during the first 21 months, as opposed to any attempt to suppress science.  But clearly the administration needs to step up the pace and ensure policies are in place.  According to John Holdren, Obama's "science czar," (again, from the NPR transcript) they expect to have guidelines in place by December.  Holdren also says that "the administration is already living by the principles of scientific integrity. But he adds, even when the guidelines are finally published, putting them in practice will be a challenge."

The full recording of the NPR discussion and a transcript can be found here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Controversial Wind Farm Off Coast of Nantucket Receives Lease

The much contentious Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound is moving forward.  The Department of Interior approved a lease for a commercial wind farm on the Outer Continental Shelf to Cape Wind Associates for its controversial 130-turbine project off of Nantucket Sound.  This marks the first commercial lease for a major wind energy project granted by the department, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said officials plan to “work with a consortium of states” to expedite the permitting process for more projects.

More information on the lease and the project can be found at the Cape Wind web site.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

EPA Reviews Hexavalent Chromium Toxicity

Last week the USEPA announced the availability of an "external review draft" of their Toxicological Review of  Hexavalent Chromium.  EPA is conducting a peer review of the scientific basis supporting the human health hazard and dose-response assessment of hexavalent chromium, also called "chromium VI" or simply "Cr(VI)," so that it can be posted on EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database.  While the water insoluble forms of chromium (e.g., chromium(III)) and chromium metal are not considered a health hazard, the toxicity and carcinogenic properties of chromium(VI) have been known for a long time.

Primarily the concern is related to chronic exposure to hexavalent chromium via ingestion. But EPA also looked at how much "the general population may be exposed to chromium by inhaling ambient air, and ingesting food and drinking water containing chromium."  EPA also says that "dermal exposure to chromium can occur from skin contact with certain consumer products or soils that contain chromium."

The deadline for comments is November 29, 2010.

Industry representatives indicate that while they support "a comprehensive risk assessment," they wonder "why EPA feels it is necessary to act now, rather than wait to review the Cr(VI) studies underway."  These additional studies are expected to be completed in early 2011.

A PDF of the Draft Toxicological Review can be downloaded on the EPA web site.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

While Congress Waffles on TSCA, the White House Pushes for Ratification of International Chemicals Treaties

I have talked before about the three international treaties of which the United States originally signed on for but for which Congress has yet to ratify.  And it's been a while, folks.  So while Congress busily punts on TSCA reform at least until next year, the Obama White House has decided to push for ratification.

And the White House's point person in the Senate is none other than Frank Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat who has spearheaded the effort to introduce (and reintroduce...and reintroduce) the ever evolving [Kid] Safe Chemical Act. 

The main reason to ratify the three treaties - Stockholm Convention on POPs, Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent, and Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution POPs Protocol - is because we don't have a seat at the table.  Okay, that's not quite right.  We have an "observer" seat at the table, and representatives can be quite vocal in pressing their point.  But when it comes time to vote the US has to sit back and let everyone else decide what happens to us.  We're not powerless, but we're also not as persuasive as we could be if they have to take our vote into consideration.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, ratification of these treaties will likely also go nowhere until after the election, and then the new Congress (perhaps, very new Congress) may have a different take on the political versus scientific advantages of active participation that ratification would provide.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Is TSCA chemical reform good for business?

It depends on who you ask.

If you ask the major NGOs, the answer is yes, of course it is good for business.  To begin with, TSCA reform would help protect both workers and the public from exposure to hazardous chemicals.  Safety is hard to prove as of now because for most chemicals there are very little actual health and safety data.  Reform would provide the data needed to more accurately assess risk.  Ensuring that all chemicals have data will also allow the public to gain more confidence that the system is protecting them.  While most people don't think about it all that often, any time there is a "chemical scare," either real or imagined, the public loses confidence in both the chemical industry and the regulatory apparatus.  And finally, TSCA reform would stimulate innovation as it would encourage the development of newer, greener chemicals.

The chemical industry is split on this point.  The manufacturing trade associations, especially those representing smaller and more specialty manufacturers, believe that increased regulatory burden is just too much for them to handle and that this will effect jobs.  Larger manufacturers tend to advocate both for and against positions, depending on the audience.  Greater requirements to provide data will obviously require more resources put toward testing and/or development of alternative data.  On the other hand, many manufacturers, especially those multinationals who do business in Europe, would already have had to develop those data to comply with the EU REACH program.  So they may find it a competitive advantage to "raise the bar" on US data requirements.  In any case they most likely have collaborations with more innovative firms to develop the next wave of more sustainable chemistries.

Behind all of this, of course, is the need for ensuring public health and safety and protection of the environment.