WASHINGTON - The argument over scientific risk assessment rose to a fever pitch in the House last week as debate pitted the Environmental Protection Agency against a well-organized industrial lobbying phalanx. Eastman Chemical Co. Chairman Earnest Deavenport fired the first salvo on Feb. 16 at the National Press Club, where he addressed the National Environmental Policy Institute's environmental leadership conference with praise for HR 9, the key Republican risk assessment bill.
``It's plain old common sense, it's not rocket science,'' he said. The bill is necessary because ``our propensity to regulate consumes more value than it creates. This trend must be reversed,'' he said.
Although EPA Administrator Carol Browner later took the same podium to call HR 9 ``a perversion,'' Deavenport said current methods of determining the risk and cost of environmental protection are wanting.
Risk assessment now is ``conducted without conviction'' and peer review - the method of consulting a number of authorities to arrive at an acceptable level of environmental regulation - ``is an insider's game,'' Deavenport said.
The debate spilled over into a discussion about the role and scope of the EPA. Critics wonder if EPA's mandate to protect humans in the environment might best be served by other departments in a slimmed-down federal bureaucracy advocated by the Congressional GOP majority.
President Clinton's fiscal 1996 budget allots $7.4 billion to EPA, up $337 million - 2 percent - over 1995.
The EPA has its supporters. The National Resources Defense Council issued a report Feb. 21 that said HR 9 is ``sweeping legislation that does not directly amend any single environmental law, but will make efforts to carry out all of them exceptionally difficult.''
Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, said HR 9 ``is an embarrassment to risk assessment.'' Looking at Deavenport, Krupp said ``the Chemical Manufacturers Association is wrong when it endorses such an extreme bill. It needs more refinements.''
Krupp said EDF backed risk assessment legislation that eventually died in the House last year. The most significant distinction is this years' addition of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.-backed amendment applying new risk assessment standards to existing EPA regulations.
Krupp said that voters gave a mixed message about the environment in last fall's elections.
``The same percentage of Americans who believe government is too intrusive believe the government should rigorously enforce and put into effect strong environmental action,'' he said.
The bulk of Browner's NEPI conference remarks focused on her defense of risk assessment programs in place in the EPA, but noted the Republican Contract with America - of which risk assessment is a major part - ``pits environmental health against economic health.''
Nonprofit NEPI was formed 18 months ago as an industry coalition headed by former U.S. Rep. Don Ritter, who represented Easton, Pa., for six terms before his defeat in 1992. Ritter ranked second-highest of all House election recipients in political action committee contributions from chemical and related industries in 1992, with $39,229.
The board of directors for the NEPI Roundtable meeting, who paid $5,000 each to participate, include Procter & Gamble Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio; Occidental Petroleum Corp. of Los Angeles; the Washington law firm of Bayh, Connaughton & Malone P.C.; the Clean Fuels Development Coalition in Washington; Molten Metal Technology Inc. of Waltham, Mass.; the Department of the Navy's Environmental Program, and the Richmond, Va., law firm of McGuire, Woods, Battle and Boothe. SPI and CMA paid $1,250 to serve as sponsors.