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EPA offered ‘non responsive’ documents to House panel following subpoena threat, staff says

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided “largely non-responsive” documents in response to a final threat by House Democrats, according to committee staff, likely setting the stage for a forthcoming subpoena.

The EPA had until Tuesday to provide the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology with internal materials related to one of its chemical programs and to make an agency representative available for an interview. While the agency provided the committee with documents by the committee’s deadline, staffers on the panel say the materials were not adequate– keeping open the door to a lingering subpoena fight.

“After staff review we feel that the letter we received last night on our [Integrated Risk Information System] request was largely non-responsive,” a committee aide told The Hill Wednesday.

The committee was looking for documents related to an EPA decision to limit the study of the health effects of formaldehyde and nine other chemicals. Formaldehyde is linked with leukemia and other health problems.

Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) previously warned EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in an Oct. 29 letter that he had one “final” chance to respond to outstanding records requests by the panel before she moved to take action to compel the agency to hand over the documents.

Members of the committee, which has jurisdiction over EPA, have complained of months of feet dragging by EPA and instances of outright refusal to respond to records and interview requests with agency officials.

“The agency has made claims of privilege on an item of interest and has flooded this committee with thousands of irrelevant documents while positioning itself as fully responsive to my requests,” Johnson wrote in her October letter.

“The committee is now prepared to issue subpoenas for the requested materials should the agency fail to meet the deadlines outlined in this letter.” 

Yet EPA’s response letter, dated Nov. 5, largely pushed back against the insinuation that the administration was not being responsive to congressional oversight requests.

“The nature of the committee’s letter and the manner in which you have suggested a compulsory process for certain information is unnecessary and exceeds the bounds of any well-established accommodation process,” Joseph Brazauskas, an EPA associate administrator, wrote to the committee. 

In its latest letter, the EPA defended its record of response to the committee. Lawmakers and agency officials, however, are often at odds over how substantive responses are and what qualifies as a fulfilled request.

“The agency disputes the accusations put forward by the committee on responsiveness. The EPA has been responsive to the committee and has accommodated its request for information,” the agency wrote before listing out various documents given to staff, along with meeting dates.

The science committee, however, has repeatedly pointed to slow walking by EPA to provide documents related to changing regulations for formaldehyde. Lawmakers have scrutinized EPA following reports that the agency suppressed a 2017 report outlining the health risks associated with formaldehyde. The EPA health assessment of the chemical, which is used in many construction materials, was expected to show that breathing it could lead to leukemia and other health problems. 

In December 2018, EPA removed formaldehyde and nine other chemical assessments entirely from its program outlook. It was later reported that David Dunlap, a top EPA official overseeing agency’s research office, failed to recuse himself from overseeing the study despite his prior role as a chemicals expert for Koch Industries.

The committee had requested recommendations made by EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection related to a chemicals program and responses pertaining to whether the EPA violated its scientific integrity policy by interfering in the formaldehyde study release.

Additionally, the committee asked EPA to make Dunlap available for an on-the-record interview with staff.

“Considering the inappropriate redactions of relevant materials and the sheer volume of non responsive documents transmitted, only 6 percent of the documents received are responsive to the committee’s request,” Johnson wrote in October.

“It is apparent that the productions submitted to date were provided in bad faith,” she added.

The EPA agreed to brief the committee in a meeting with Dunlap and other agency officials. 

An EPA spokesperson characterized the agency’s interactions with the science committee as “entirely transparent.”

“EPA has been entirely transparent in our production of documents and information to the committee in the issues raised in letters, questions during testimony, and numerous conversations with committee staff,” the spokesperson told The Hill in a statement last week.

“Any accusation that the agency has been unresponsive is patently false. We will continue to work in good faith with the committee as we have the past few months.”

The deadline for EPA’s response fell during a congressional recess. It’s expected that the committee would not start any subpoena action until next week at the earliest.

The House science committee is one of several considering taking subpoena measures to compel documents from the Trump administration.

The chair of the House Natural Resources Committee has also indicated lawmakers are intending to take legal action to force documents from the Department of Interior, the agency that committee oversees.

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