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264 and Counting

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San Francisco -- Those of you with reverse-counting key chains know that I am referring to the number of days left in the Bush presidency. More evidence arrived this week that 264 days are far too many. In a new report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that the White House is now allowing the Office of Management and Budget, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies that EPA is supposed to be regulating to offer secret comments that could delay and distort EPA's assessments of the risks of long-term chemical exposures.

Under this new policy, for example, FEMA, which was exposing hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims to formaldehyde in its toxic trailers, could have slowed down an EPA risk assessment of formaldehyde. The Defense Department, which uses hundreds of toxic chemicals, could interfere in scientific assessment of the risks those toxics pose. The process of assessing these risks is already glacially slow (note: I'm referring here to pre-global warming glaciers). The GAO reported that "of 70 reviews being done in December, 48 had been ongoing for more than five years, including 12 that had taken more than nine years. Although the EPA's goal is to complete 50 assessments each year, it finished only four total in 2006 and 2007."

How does the White House get away with making these comments "secret"? Very neatly -- they simply define this input as "deliberative" rather than "scientific." Maintaining the secrecy of "deliberative processes" has been the centerpiece of the Bush-Cheney effort to end openness in government outside the national security arena. Now, science is supposed to be about facts -- and peer-reviewed. Deliberation is supposed to be about policy, not facts -- and hence kept confidential. But by defining scientific input as "deliberative" the Administration accomplishes two things. One is the intended result: Keep the facts and the interference secret.

The second accomplishment is less intentional but perhaps more important: We can no longer doubt that this Administration does not believe in sound science, or peer-reviewed science, or any form of what we might normally think of as science. It believes in the suppression of science. After all, if scientific risk assessments are "deliberative," then they cannot, by definition, be "scientific." Bush can't have it both ways.

And it matters. EPA has been hinting that it would weaken public health exposure standards for lead. But its plans have run into trouble because a new scientific study released by the agency itself shows that even very low levels of lead reduce IQ in children. But under the new procedure, any federal agency that didn't want this new data to slow down efforts to weaken health protections against lead could file secret comments and hold up the release of the report for years.

In response, Senator Barbara Boxer warned that if the Administration politicizes EPA's review process, Congress will simply ban suspect chemicals because it won't be able to trust the agency's risk assessments. "If we don't see action out of EPA on regulating these chemicals, Congress is going to do it," Boxer said. "The weaker the process gets, the stronger we get."