PRESS RELEASE

Expertise Gaps Plague EPA Chemical Assessments

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Contact
Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933, kbennett@peer.org

Expertise Gaps Plague EPA Chemical Assessments

EPA Lacks Plan to Fill or Retain Critical Scientific Specialist Positions

 

Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency programs for assessing hazards for both new and existing chemicals is hamstrung by an overall staff shortage but even more so by lack of needed scientific specialists. But EPA does not have a current plan for remedying these specialty shortfalls or for retaining the specialists they currently have, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

A critical report last year from EPA’s own Office of Inspector General has found that there are not enough full-time employees in EPA’s New Chemicals and Existing Chemicals divisions to do the required work due to a lack of planning. More specifically, these divisions do not have the proper expertise to conduct adequate risk assessments. EPA scientists report to PEER that these operations lack needed specialists such as an inhalation expert, an inorganic chemist, a nano-toxicologist, cancer experts, and a pathologist, among others.

In both speeches and congressional testimony, Michal Freedhoff, the Assistant Administrator overseeing the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), has confirmed staff shortages are hampering risk assessments for both new and existing chemicals and that EPA was acting to address these scientific staff shortages in the FY 2022 budget.

However, in response to a November 3, 2021 Freedom of Information Act request from PEER about those current plans, the agency –

  • Was only able to produce a Workforce Analysis for 2015-2020. Even that analysis contained little specific information, identifying “top critical” skills in only the most general terms such as “Exposure Assessment” and “Critical Thinking”;
  • Despite a 9% annual attrition rate for OPPT during the past five years, EPA has “no responsive records related to” PEER’s request for “any plan for retaining of scientists now working or recruited to work on” chemical assessments; and
  • While the Workforce Analysis stressed the importance of improving upon OPPT’s dismal 2019 Federal Employee View Survey (FEVS) results, those results were even worse in the 2020 FEVS, with it scoring the lowest in the agency and its Risk Assessment Division (which reviews toxicity of new and existing chemicals) scoring even lower.

“EPA has no program to identify its specialty needs for chemical assessments,” stated PEER Scientific Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney who formerly worked within EPA. “While it is estimated that under Trump, EPA lost approximately 1,000 scientists, scientists are not fungible; a botanist and a physicist do not do the same things. EPA needs to be able to tell what type of specialists it needs to do what.”

The main reason for concern is that EPA’s inability to properly analyze chemical hazards puts consumers and workers exposed to these chemicals at risk for adverse effects not reflected in EPA’s assessments. Moreover, strict deadlines on chemical approvals place extreme production pressure on an already severely shorthanded staff.

Aggravating this problem is detailed EPA scientist complaints that industry is influencing agency managers to improperly excise critical risk data from assessments. None of the responsible managers have been moved out of OCSPP, and scientists report the misconduct is still occurring.

“EPA’s program to analyze toxic chemicals is itself a toxic workplace,” added Bennett. “The fact that EPA does not have a plan for retaining scientists suggests attrition will only worsen.”

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Look at OPPT Workplace Analysis 2015-2020

View OPPT Staffing Gap spreadsheet

Read EPA IG report on lack of staff planning

See OPPT’s abysmal employee survey results

Revisit EPA managers improperly doctoring risk assessments

See chemical industry domination of EPA assessment process