By Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced on March 7, 2023, that EPA did not follow the typical intra-agency review and clearance process during the development and publication of the January 2021 perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) toxicity assessment. OIG conducted its evaluation to determine whether EPA followed applicable policies and procedures to develop and publish the PFBS toxicity assessment. OIG notes that two weeks after publication, EPA removed the toxicity assessment from its website, citing political interference and Scientific Integrity Policy violations. EPA republished the toxicity assessment in April 2021.
According to OIG, EPA did not follow the typical intra-agency review and clearance process during the development and publication of the January 2021 toxicity assessment. OIG states that during final clearance, “a political appointee directed that a last-minute review be conducted of the uncertainty factors used to calculate toxicity values, resulting in a scientific disagreement that caused delay, confusion, and significant changes to the near-final, peer-reviewed work product.” The changes included replacing single toxicity values with “unprecedented toxicity ranges.” Users of the toxicity assessment, including regulated entities cleaning up PFBS contamination, “could have selected a less stringent value within this range, which may have been less costly but also less protective of human health.” While EPA staff expressed scientific integrity concerns about the last-minute review and risks to public health, EPA lacked policies and procedures to address these concerns. According to OIG, without updates to policies and procedures, EPA cannot fulfill its commitment to scientific integrity and information quality.
OIG made five recommendations:
- Three to the Assistant Administrator for Research and Development to reduce procedural confusion and strengthen existing policies, procedures, and guidance by clarifying if and when comments expressing scientific disagreement can be expressed; making clear if and when toxicity ranges are acceptable; and using OIG as a resource for high-profile scientific integrity concerns that relate to political interference or that assert risk to human health or the environment;
- One to the Assistant Administrator for Mission Support to update policies and procedures on environmental information quality to require additional quality assurance reviews for EPA products; and
- One to the Deputy Administrator to strengthen EPA’s culture of scientific integrity, transparency, and accountability of political leadership actions when changes occur as a result of policy decisions.
OIG notes that “EPA disagreed with all five recommendations, which remain unresolved.”