Energy & Environment

Science committee chair threatens EPA over 'stonewalled' answers to lawmakers

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said she is "deeply troubled" by the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) lack of cooperation with lawmakers in a letter sent Thursday to EPA chief Andrew Wheeler.

Johnson said the EPA's failure to provide requested information to her committee represented an "obstruction of Congress," and she threatened "compulsory measures" if it does not provide previously requested information by July and August deadlines.

"Over the past five months, EPA has stonewalled this Committee - preventing a coequal branch of government from conducting constitutionally-mandated oversight," Johnson wrote.

"I am deeply troubled by this lack of cooperation with our efforts to evaluate a program so vital to ensuring the health and safety of the American people, and this behavior fits into a disturbing pattern of obstruction and disrespect of Congressional authority."

The EPA in a statement said the letter included a number of "inaccurate statements and mischaracterizations." It also said it had made efforts to send officials to the committee to answer its questions.

"The Committee's letter includes a number of inaccurate statements and mischaracterizations, including that of the Agency's interaction with the Committee and Committee staff," the statement from EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said.

"The Agency previously worked with the Committee to provide our top career science official within the Office of Research and Development to testify on the IRIS program." 

The IRIS program is the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System, which is at the center of the panel's fight with the agency.

Lawmakers have put the chemical program under a microscope following reports that the agency suppressed a 2017 report outlining the health risks associated with formaldehyde. The program within the EPA is responsible for conducting many chemical risk assessment reports. These reports often underpin federal health protections.

Johnson's committee has been pressing the EPA to explain why in December 2018 it removed formaldehyde and nine other chemical assessments from its program outlook.

"The agency has rebuffed the committee's attempts to understand the prioritization process and how the benefits of eliminating several late-stage chemical assessments, including formaldehyde, outweigh the benefits," Johnson wrote.

Johnson listed four instances where letters had been written to the EPA with questions or requests for briefings with agency officials, to little or no response.

She also cited the committee's March 27 hearing on IRIS, where Kristina Thayer, the head of the program, was requested to testify. EPA instead sent another employee, Dr. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, who Johnson said was not involved in certain decisions the committee was keen to learn more about.

"At the hearing it became clear that Dr. Orme-Zavaleta was not involved in many of the decisions at the core of the committee's investigation of the program, and she was not prepared by the agency to answer basic questions about relevant events about the past year," Johnson wrote.

Abboud said Orme-Zavaleta was the EPA's science adviser and principal deputy assistant administrator, and "was capable of adequately informing the Committee on the IRIS program and did so for as long as the Committee members had questions during the Committee's March 27th hearing on the IRIS program."

He accused panel members of mischaracterizing statements Orme-Zavaleta made in her testimony.

"As for the Committee's repeated complaints this week about the Agency's decision on who to provide on behalf of the EPA to testify, it is disappointing that the Committee refuses to acknowledge the extensive qualifications of Dr. Orme-Zavaleta and her ability to speak knowledgeably on all issues within her office and that the Committee continues to insist on dictating to the Agency who they believed is qualified to speak on issues, rather than agreeing to work with the Agency," Abboud said.

He added that Wheeler had agreed to testify in front of the committee on Sept. 19.

Johnson in her letter said EPA's continued attempts to obfuscate details related to the IRIS program amounts to an "obstruction of Congress."

She said the panel wanted by the end of the business day Friday one specific document related to IRIS.

"Your staff in congressional affairs has made every effort to obstruct the committee's oversight, going so far as to attempt to change the substance of the record. At this point, the committee has exhausted all non-compulsory means of conducting oversight over EPA. The agency's obstruction of Congress is particularly disturbing considering the implications of the matter at hand for children's health," she wrote.