The Environmental Protection Agency no doubt is planning its strategy for the next attempt to derail Congress's risk assessment juggernaut. The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. has hitched its star to risk assessment in the name of good science and the es-tablishment of uniform risk standards. Decisive House Science and Commerce Committee votes Feb. 8 wrested from EPA the process of determining what is good for the environment. But is there any assurance that an overhaul of environmental risk review at the hands of Congress will result in a more even standard of costs to public benefit?
There is some wisdom in the words of Linda Greer, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who testified Feb. 15 before the Senate Government Affairs Committee that risk assessment is not always the same thing as regulatory reform. The latter is the big picture of which risk assessment is one vignette.
By the same token, a major alteration in the rulemaking process of what constitutes risk still must go through a bureaucracy - which won't change its ways without a mandate.
``Risk assessment is an important tool that is already used to assure all major rules are scientifically justified. Requiring it for every single action is neither fair, effective, nor affordable,'' EPA Administrator Carol Browner sputtered in a post-House vote statement.
Browner, upset with the prospect of having EPA pushed further down the decision-making ladder, would be quite right - if there were agreement on what constitutes major rules.
The resulting argument over rules between EPA and Congress is what threatens to paralyze the legislative initiative taken in the House votes.
Congressional committees base their case for reform on the now-famous example of regulatory excess at a New England playground.
The play area's dirt was cleaned by a contractor to the point where children could eat it with no ill effects for 70 days running. EPA insisted on soil clean enough to eat for 245 days, at an additional cleanup cost of $9 million. If every case were that simple, it would be easy for Congress to reform the risk level.
The committees took their cue from Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker, R-Pa., who ushered in measures calling for balanced scientific assessment of the risks and costs in advance of new regulations - and for those previously imposed.
The GOP takeover of Congress in November dashed Browner's hopes, and that of other entrenched Washington environmental hangers-on, that EPA would rise from mere agency to presidential cabinet status. But now, the authority to impose arbitrary and politically correct mandates on landowners, factories, and, yes plastics processors, is in jeopardy.
If we're going to reform it, let's do it right the first time.