“We’re Terrified”: This EPA Program On Toxic Chemicals Is Struggling To Keep Its Staff

"Believe me, I’ve shackled and imprisoned them, but they are still going,” said one EPA official.

A wave of retirements has hit the Environmental Protection Agency’s research program to identify and evaluate toxic chemicals, and more staff departures are on the horizon.

This staffing exodus comes as the program, called the Integrated Risk Information System, faces a shrinking budget under the Trump administration and a complicated overhaul of how it conducts chemical assessments.

“Right around the winter holidays, we had significant attrition,” EPA official Tina Bahadori told the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee Thursday. “There’s another trend ahead of us. Believe me, I’ve shackled and imprisoned them, but they are still going."

It’s not just IRIS. Staff are fleeing EPA headquarters and regional offices in droves. About 770 employees left between last April and December, according to ThinkProgress. The departures are largely longtime staff who are at or near retirement age and have accepted recent buyouts or left on their own. As part of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s strategy to cut the agency’s budget, more than 1,200 staff were offered buyouts last year. The buyouts, along with Pruitt’s deregulatory efforts, his questioning of climate science, and his close ties to industry, have also reportedly contributed to low employee morale.

When a committee member asked Bahadori if she was concerned about more people leaving IRIS, she responded, “We’re terrified of that.”

About 10 people have either left IRIS or offices that work closely with it since September, Bahadori told BuzzFeed News, leaving IRIS with about 30 full-time employees and about 35 others who have been pulled in from other parts of the agency to help.

When asked what roles the program is losing, IRIS Director Kristina Thayer told the committee, “I think it’s everything.”

The lost staff, she explained, had expertise ranging from literature reviews to risk assessment modeling.

When there’s been a crucial loss of expertise, “we’ve either redefined the scope” of work, Bahadori said, “or had to steal and plunder across the agency.”

“We’ve been given permission to do recruitments inside the agency,” she later added. “We’ve been doing ok recently.” For example, they are currently on the hunt within EPA to get more public health experts who study the spread and origins of disease.

Related to the brain drain is EPA’s squeeze on program resources. Even under former agency head Gina McCarthy there was a decreased use of outside contractors, according to Bahadori. This trend has magnified under Pruitt.

“This administrator in particular is very keen on efficiency and that applies more broadly to the agency as a whole,” she said.

Despite these hurdles, IRIS is pushing forward with its overhaul for identifying and reviewing chemicals. The National Academies reviewed the program in 2014, and this week’s meeting continues that discussion.

"Being in Washington, there’s a constant cacophony about the beleaguered IRIS program," Bahadori said at the start of the meeting. “We do believe that this work is really, really critical and the option of walking away from it does not exist.”

Bahadori could have been referring to a recent House Science Committee letter criticizing how IRIS does its analyses, or to a request filed months ago by chemical manufacturing company Denka Performance Elastomer to reconsider a past assessment for a chemical called chloroprene. (IRIS concluded in 2010 chloroprene is “likely to be carcinogenic” to humans, and earlier this week it rejected Denka’s request.)

Some speakers at the National Academies meeting Thursday focused on the nitty-gritty of IRIS’s new and shifting workflow while others voiced concerns about EPA’s new leadership taking advantage of this program review to undermine agency scientists and peer-reviewed science.

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