Where there’s smoke, there are mirrors: The Trump Administration’s claim to preserve TSCA implementation under its proposed EPA budget is pure illusion

Richard Denison, Ph.D.is a Lead Senior Scientist.

As more details emerge about the Trump Administration’s proposed budget cuts, it’s becoming clearer that the public’s health could well take one of the worst hits.  Trump has proposed a 31% cut to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paired with similarly deep reductions in staff.  The details are laid out in a March 21, 2017, internal memo from EPA’s Acting Chief Financial Officer.

Among the biggest cuts are to the Agency’s research, both research it conducts and that undertaken by labs and universities it helps fund.  EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) would see its funding cut nearly in half, from $483 million to $250 million in 2018. The axe would fall across the full spectrum of EPA’s research:  air, climate, and energy; human health risk assessment; safe and sustainable water; sustainable communities; homeland security; and chemical safety.  EPA’s extramural STAR grant program would be entirely eliminated.

Scroll through Attachment A of the memo and you’ll see program after program proposed to be eliminated or slashed.  But there is a notable exception, on p. 9 of the Attachment:  an apparent increase for an item labeled “OCSPP / EPM / Toxic Substances: Chemical Risk Review and Reduction,” accompanied by this explanation:  “This program change increases $13,834K in non-pay resources in support of the new work required under the updated TSCA law.”

On one level, this seems like a bright spot in an otherwise dismal document, though it appears that the increase is in anticipation of the fees that the new TSCA authorizes EPA to collect from industry to help offset up to 25% of program costs.  Still, unlike most of the rest of the Agency, the program’s base budget is proposed to remain essentially intact.

No doubt this reflects the strong bipartisan support that led to last year’s passage of the Lautenberg Act and the continuing need for the chemical industry to be able to point to a viable federal chemical safety program in order to restore public and market confidence and seek to temper state and market action to restrict dangerous chemicals.  (I’ve recently blogged, however, about the mixed signals being sent by the industry; see here and here.)

While this may seem like good news, the notion that EPA could somehow neatly carve out one program area and keep it functioning well when the carving knives are rampantly slashing everything around it is, well, preposterous.  

A functioning TSCA office at EPA is highly dependent on many other functions within the Agency.  I’ll just name two here for starters, both of which are housed within ORD and are proposed for near or total elimination under Mr. Trump’s proposed budget:

  • EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) would be zeroed out (see references to IRIS on pages 19 and 21 of Attachment A of the budget memo). Yet EPA’s ability to conduct risk evaluations under the new TSCA would be severely curtailed by the loss of both expertise and capacity that resides in the IRIS program.  IRIS conducts hazard characterizations of chemicals, providing hazard values that other EPA offices combine with exposure information to characterize risk.  Of the risk evaluations underway for the first 10 so-called TSCA Work Plan chemicals, more than half have completed IRIS hazard assessments on which the TSCA office plans to build (these include asbestos, trichloroethylene (TCE), 1,4-dioxane, carbon tetrachloride, dichloromethane, and tetrachloroethylene), and for another IRIS has initiated an assessment (hexabromocyclododecane).
    While IRIS has had its share of criticism in the past, major improvements have been made, leading the National Academy of Sciences to applaud the program for embracing and quickly acting on its earlier recommendations.
  • EPA’s ToxCast and related initiatives. Major cuts are proposed to EPA’s “Chemical Safety for Sustainability” research program: a 44% reduction in budget and 22% cut in staffing (see references to “Chemical Safety and Sustainability” [sic] on page 20 of Attachment A of the budget memo).  This program has been shepherding the development of high-throughput testing and other predictive toxicology methods and computational tools that hold enormous promise to provide far more information on chemicals than has been possible in the past, and to do so at far less expense and with the use of far fewer laboratory animals.  The need to further develop these approaches has been embraced by the entire spectrum of TSCA stakeholders, from industry to health and environmental organizations to animal welfare groups.   Given the large number of chemicals regulated under TSCA for which major data gaps exist, the TSCA reform legislation enacted last year has numerous provisions that call on EPA to advance the development and use of these methods.

In addition, cross-cutting functions that would suffer deep budget cuts are essential for a functioning TSCA office.  For example, effective and equitable enforcement is critical to ensure not only that requirements are met, but also that companies in compliance are not put at a competitive disadvantage relative to companies that aren’t.  Yet the enforcement office is cut by 23 percent, rewarding the cheaters, rather than the large majority of businesses who work to comply with the law.

I cite these examples to illustrate how utterly impossible – and how short-sighted and counterproductive – it is to cut to the bone the core functions of EPA and then pretend that a “TSCA island” can still somehow thrive or even survive.

My EDF colleague Jack Pratt summed up in a single sentence just how crazy this approach is:  “You can’t burn down my house, and then expect me to cook you dinner because the kitchen is still standing.”

 

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