On November 20th, the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee released the Environmental Appropriations Bill for FY 2018. The bill, if implemented, would cut a program responsible for monitoring the negative health impact of certain chemicals. That program, known as the Integrated Risk Information System (or IRIS), would be combined with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a move many democrats vehemently oppose.
Democrats opposed to the measure have indicated that the TSCA was not intended to fulfill the duties of IRIS, and thus lacks the appropriate resources to adequately replace the chemical monitoring program.
Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the ranking member on the subcommittee, sent mixed messages, celebrating the fact that the bill did not make the extreme cuts suggested by Trump. Nonetheless, he observed, one cannot overlook “the deep and damaging cuts to the EPA budget in this bill that put public health at risk.”
Senator Lisa Murkowsi (R-Alaska) confidently announced the new bill, suggesting that it supports the “health, well-being, and safety of the American people.”
In the end, the bill would reduce the 2017 budget levels by $250 million, but offer nearly $5 billion more than suggested by the administration’s plan.
Democrats are most likely right about IRIS. Its function might be more pivotal than the Republicans make it out to be. The Environmental Defense Fund released a fact sheet outlining the important roles performed by the program. According to that sheet, most of the fundamental science pertaining to chemicals is conducted by IRIS – meaning without the program, the EPA would likely notice a hole in its scientific data. That may be a boon to industries – as a lack of chemical-related data could make it more difficult to regulate companies responsible for chemical-related pollution – but it is certainly a failure with respect to public health.
More to the point, IRIS is responsible for monitoring the potentially negative health effects of certain chemicals. This is key when it comes to cleaning up superfund sites – regions of the US that are saturated with toxic waste – like Livingston, an area ravaged by a negligent railway company. That’s just one of at least five health-related duties fulfilled by the program.
It’s important to note that though the program is being rolled into the TSCA, it is at the same time losing nearly two-thirds of its budget for chemical assessment, one of its primary functions.
Why Cut It?
As intimated by Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., IRIS is essential for assessing health risks related to our drinking water, to the air we breathe, as well as to industry-related pollution. By assessing these risks, the program satisfies requirements set forth by the law and serves to maintain public health standards.
So if the program is so vital, why tear it to shreds? McPartland notes that opponents of IRIS have railed against the program due to several bad reviews. The GAO and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) have both written up reports putting IRIS in a negative light. But what these critics fail to highlight are more recent reports celebrating the program’s quick improvement.
In fact, the NAS, itself, published a report in 2014 noting IRIS’ quick turnaround relative to previous reviews – namely the 2011 review of IRIS’ formaldehyde assessment, which was largely negative. The Scientific Advisory Board of the EPA added to the choir of positivity in a letter sent to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, saying, “[N]o other federal entity performs the IRIS functions, and […] IRIS helps ensure consistency in chemical assessments within the Agency and across the federal government.”
In light of the program’s function and its recent improvements, it seems downright irresponsible for the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee to propose such a cut. The Senate Bill, as it now stands, is still better than its counterpart in the House, which suggests a $528 million reduction relative to 2017 budget levels.
None of this comes as any surprise, as this year, we have seen blow after blow delivered to environmental regulations and the agencies responsible for overseeing their implementation.