The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to no longer be releasing preliminary assessments of potentially hazardous new chemicals or new uses of existing chemicals, according to documents reviewed by E&E News.
The development means the public has no way to know whether the agency has initial concerns or has granted companies preliminary authorization to begin manufacturing new chemicals or using them in novel ways.
During the Obama administration, EPA would note whether new chemicals or new chemical uses were "not likely to present an unreasonable risk" to human health or the environment.
That meant companies "may commence manufacture upon notification by EPA's Chemical Control Division by letter, notwithstanding any remaining portion of the applicable review period," an archived page on the agency's website says.
Other interim status designations the Obama EPA assigned to new chemicals or uses indicated they were set either for "standard review," as unable to be reviewed because of "insufficient information available" or as possibly presenting "unreasonable risk of injury."
The agency would then render a final verdict within 90 days of receiving relevant documents from companies behind the substances.
Public health advocates paid particularly close attention to chemicals EPA flagged as potential concerns but later approved for manufacturing or new uses.
Under Administrator Scott Pruitt, however, EPA seems to have moved to curtail public access to information about chemical reviews.
A December 2017 presentation on EPA's website shows the agency felt "previous terminology used for interim status created confusion," so it stopped updating the online database where the public could track the status of new chemical or new use reviews.
This change dramatically limits the agency's accountability to the public, not to mention transparency.
"EPA is developing revised terminology for interim status and intends to resume updating that column once the effort is complete," said the document.
It was authored by Tanya Hodge Mottley, acting deputy director of programs in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
On 5 January, EPA quietly rolled out its changes to the chemical review tracking website. Now the interim status for more than 120 reviews that began since September 2017 is simply "focus meeting occurred," which only indicates that EPA staff has held preliminary discussions about the new chemical or use.
There were few deviations from that boilerplate designation. One chemical during that period had no interim status because it was withdrawn from consideration and a handful of others were labeled "invalid," which could mean the chemical may not be subject to EPA review or the agency has already reviewed it.
The agency did not respond to specific questions about the rationale for the apparent change. But spokesman Jahan Wilcox said, "EPA is committed to an open and transparent review of new chemicals, in accordance with the bipartisan Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act."
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) first spotted the new pattern and is unhappy with it. "All the public knows is that a 'Focus Meeting Occurred,'" EDF Senior Scientist Richard Denison said in a sarcastic blog post. "Gosh, that's helpful."
Denison wrote, "This change dramatically limits the agency's accountability to the public, not to mention transparency."