Several decades ago, the EPA tasked a small staff to become the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), a research program dedicated to identifying and evaluating toxic chemicals and inhalation exposure. Now under pressure to remodel how it conducts chemical assessments under new TSCA rules, that staff has shrunk by 10 employees.
According to BuzzFeed News, IRIS is left with 30 full-timers and 35 others pulled from other parts of the agency. But those who left, only since last September, were key members of the team. In a National Academics of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee meeting Thursday, when asked what expertise the program lost, IRIS Director Kristina Thayer said, “I think it’s everything.”
The EPA as It Stands
Thayer explained that these departures wiped out a skill set critical to the effectiveness of chemical assessment, ranging from literature reviews to risk assessment modeling. This “significant attrition,” according to EPA official Tina Bahadori, is expected to worsen.
“There’s another trend ahead of us,” Bahadori told the committee. “Believe me, I’ve shackled and imprisoned them, but they are still going.”
And IRIS isn’t the only EPA program facing mass losses. More than 770 employees left the agency between April and December last year, and most have not been replaced. Many were longtime staff at or near retirement age, but several hundred have taken buyout packages. A 2017 report warned of an impending exodus amid EPA plans to buy out 1,227 positions.
The committee quizzed Bahadori about the prospect of more people leaving IRIS. She responded, “We’re terrified of that.” And unfortunately, toxic chemicals may be 1 of the most important issues affected.
What Will Massive Layoffs Do for Toxic Chemicals?
The loss of expertise within IRIS has meant “we’ve either redefined the scope” of work, Bahadori said, “or had to steal and plunder across the agency.” However, scientists have dwindled agency-wide. A New York Times report noted they make up 27 percent of the 770 employees who left, including more than a dozen toxicologists and representing decades of knowledge about protecting our nation’s environment. Fifty-four people left the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, and only 7 were hired.
This downsizing comes as the EPA plans to start a complicated overhaul of the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016. The revised TSCA, which affects toxic substances such as the lethal mineral asbestos, would crack down on the regulation of some 85,000 dangerous toxins.
IRIS plans to push forward with the overhaul, according to last week’s committee discussion. But speakers voiced concerns about the EPA’s new corporate-leaning leaders undermining agency scientists by taking advantage of the review, which leadership already weakened to protect industry partners from scrutiny.
What’s Standing in the Way of Free, Healthy, and Safe America?
The staff buyouts, TSCA controversy, and undermining of science are all part of Trump’s and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s new strategy: Slash public health budgets. Last year the administration announced they would cut the EPA budget by 31 percent, sending an estimated 3,800 employees home for good.
Agency staffers say they believe the Trump administration is purposely draining the EPA of expertise, and further, morale. And as quickly as they jump overboard, the administration forces further cuts, seemingly well on its way to achieving its goal of cutting 20 percent of the workforce. Pruitt’s office pins this decision on prioritizing important environmental programs over payroll expenses. Experts consider its priorities misdirected.
“I think it’s important to focus on what the agency is all about, and what it means to lose expertise, particularly on the science and public health side,” said Thomas Burke, the agency’s science adviser under Obama. “The mission of the agency is the protection of public health. Clearly, there’s been a departure in the mission.”