House committee hits EPA with subpoenas

House committee hits EPA with subpoenas
© Aaron Schwartz

The House Science Committee has formally issued two subpoenas to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), demanding answers on various scientific rulemakings that lawmakers argue have been unnecessarily delayed.

The Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent the subpoenas to EPA late Friday afternoon, fulfilling a months' long threat to force the hand of the agency to respond to oversight document requests. The move is the latest escalation of a brewing conflict between the agency and the congressional committee, chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), that oversees it.

EPA officials called the subpoenas "reckless and unjustified," and have long argued that the agency has gone above and beyond to respond to committee staffer requests.

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"EPA has been entirely transparent in producing the specific documents and information to Chairwoman Johnson in response to the issues raised in letters, questions during testimony, and numerous conversations with Committee staff. To accuse the agency of anything less is completely false," EPA said in a statement Friday.

"The action taken today would cause any reasonable person to believe that Chairwoman Johnson does not know how to take ‘yes’ for an answer. Instead, it appears that the Chairwoman is more interested in pursuing a political attack on the agency and the Trump Administration, rather than actually working in good faith to obtain information from EPA."

The committee has been seeking documents related to an EPA decision to limit the study of the health effects of formaldehyde and nine other chemicals. Formaldehyde is linked with leukemia and other health problems.

The formal demand for documents comes after the science committee sent a letter to EPA in late October giving the agency a "final" chance to respond to outstanding data and interview requests before moving to take action to compel the agency to hand over the documents.

Science committee staff told The Hill last week that the documents EPA provided by the deadline were "largely non-responsive."

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"After staff review we feel that the letter we received last night on our IRIS [Integrated Risk Information System] request was largely non-responsive," a committee aide said.

The two subpoenas request a transcribed interview with David Dunlap, EPA's deputy assistant administrator for Science Policy in the Office of Research and Development, and final takeaways from EPA's Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) that looked into the IRIS program's priorities. 

EPA in a letter sent to Johnson Thursday offered Dunlap for a committee staff briefing as soon as Nov 18, but not for an interview. The agency also offered the science committee the ability to view the requested memorandum from OCHP, but said they must do so in person at the agency. EPA staff contend the documents are sensitive and can not be released. The science committee did not respond to that letter.

Johnson said the two subpoenas were sent to EPA "with some regret" "after eight months of delayed and insufficient responses."

"EPA’s response has been wholly lacking. Rather than providing information to the committee which could actually inform the committee’s inquiry, the EPA has dragged its feet and provided the committee with useless information," Johnson wrote in her letter to EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerEPA to resume contract negotiations with employee union Overnight Energy: Critics call EPA air guidance 'an industry dream' | New Energy secretary says Trump wants to boost coal | EPA looks to speed approval of disputed industry pollution permits Latest EPA guidance weakens air protections in favor of industry, critics say MORE

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"The EPA has approached its responses to this congressional oversight with an accountant’s zeal, constantly reiterating how many pages of documents it has provided to the committee."

The two subpoenas give EPA until Nov 19 to provide the OCHP recommendations and Dunlap until Dec 13 to testify at a deposition.

Updated at 5:40 p.m.