The Environmental Protection Agency will need a decade or more to complete assessments of dozens of toxic chemicals it targeted under a more aggressive approach unveiled last year, according to the Government Accountability Office.
GAO reported Monday that EPA has been slow to use its powers to collect the information it needs from companies under the Toxic Substances Control Act, making it hard to say whether the agency will meet its plans to ensure chemical safety.
"Specifically, EPA has not clearly articulated how it will address challenges associated with obtaining toxicity and exposure data needed for risk assessments and placing limits on or banning chemicals under existing TSCA authorities," GAO Director for Natural Resources and Environment David C. Trimble said in the report.
Of 83 chemicals EPA plans for priority assessments, it was able to start just seven assessments in 2012 and planned 18 more this year and in 2014. It still does not have data on 58 chemicals.
In January, EPA made the first five draft assessments available for a 60-day public comment period.
Additionally, EPA also has not sought data submitted by chemical companies to foreign governments, GAO said. And it hasn't requested help from chemical processors that could also aid its assessments.
The approach to completing the assessments comes after EPA began work on the 83 chemicals following the 2012 release of the Existing Chemicals Program Strategy, which followed a 2009 chemical safety reform initiative started by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Under the plan, EPA was to transition from reliance on voluntary data submitted by chemical companies to one in which it used its regulatory powers to compel the collection of data.
GAO noted that EPA required companies to test 34 chemicals for toxicity and to submit the results to the government, and in 2011 it proposed another 23 for testing. Yet the process of finalizing the requirements and collecting the data could take up to seven years or more.
The assessment timetable, among other factors, has led EPA to take other steps to discourage the use of certain toxic chemicals, such as issuing rules for new uses.
"According to EPA officials, this approach allows the agency to 'chip away' at chemicals that may pose risks to human health and the environment," GAO said.
GAO concluded that EPA's efforts could ultimately be undercut by a lack of planning. The agency has not identified the resources it needs to carry out the strategy and the roles of key officials and offices.
Nor has it come a conclusion about how it would overcome difficulties under the law it faces in trying to limit or ban chemicals.
"Consequently, EPA could be investing valuable resources, time, and effort without being certain that its efforts will bring the agency closer to achieving its goal of ensuring the safety of chemicals," GAO said.
GAO first made the report available last month to Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Sen. Tom Udall, D-Colo., who chairs the committee's subcommittee that oversees toxics, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
EPA told GAO that it neither agreed nor disagreed with its findings, and that it would consider its recommendations. It also noted that some actions suggested by GAO would require action by Congress.
"It is EPA's position that, absent such statutory changes, the agency will not be able to successfully meet the goal of ensuring chemical safety now and in the future," EPA Acting Assistant Administrator James J. Jones said in a letter to Trimble.
Officials at EPA did not respond to a request for additional comment.