May 7, 2008

Whitehouse Chairs Senate Hearing Investigating Political Influence at EPA

Agency Official Refuses to Respond to Scientists' Worries that Science Fell by the Wayside Under Bush Administration

Washington, D.C. – At a hearing this morning chaired by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a top Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official refused to respond to concerns raised by scientists and policymakers that political considerations have dictated decision-making at the agency.

“What I see is an EPA that has systemically and deliberately exposed itself to political influence,” Whitehouse said.

At the hearing, before the Oversight Subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, Whitehouse and other senators heard testimony from George Gray, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, and a panel of scientists.

Over and over, Whitehouse and others cited instances in which decisions or rulings by the EPA ran counter to the recommendations of the agency’s professional scientists and EPA-chartered scientific advisory committees.

One of those cases involved the Clean Air Act standard limiting the amount of ozone, or smog, pollution in the air. Poor air quality due to ozone pollution can worsen asthma or other breathing problems, particularly among children and the elderly. When a court ordered EPA to revisit this nearly decade-old standard, which had been set at 0.080 parts per million, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson rejected the unanimous recommendations of two scientific advisory panels, setting a new standard well above the range advocated by the committees.

When Whitehouse asked George Gray about that discrepancy, Gray said the EPA’s ozone standard was “a very good example of the way in which uncertainty in science plays an important role in decisions.”

“You’re telling me, and you expect me to believe, that two unanimous decisions by panels that EPA chose creates scientific uncertainty in the mind of EPA?” Whitehouse said.

“They certainly do,” Gray responded.

Last Friday, Whitehouse spoke on the Senate floor to decry the mounting evidence of political meddling at EPA. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 60 percent of EPA scientists who responded to a survey said they had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference during the past five years.

Whitehouse also expressed concern about the recent forced resignation of Mary Gade, the EPA’s top regional administrator in the Midwest. Ms. Gade told the Chicago Tribune she was instructed by aides to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson to step down over a disagreement with the administration on her handling of a dioxin cleanup effort in Michigan involving Dow Chemical.

In his speech Friday, Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney and Attorney General who was deeply involved in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigation into the Administration’s firing of several U.S. Attorneys, said Ms. Gade’s resignation “seems like déjà vu all over again from an administration that values compliance with a political agenda over the best interests of the American people.”


Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921