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July 14, 2022

GAO Finds Remaining Priority Recommendations for EPA Include Four Priority Recommendations for the IRIS Program

Lynn L. Bergeson Carla N. Hutton

On July 8, 2022, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) publicly released its 2022 update on its priority open recommendations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In June 2021, GAO identified 22 priority recommendations for EPA. According to GAO, EPA has since implemented ten of those recommendations by requiring states to report quarterly to EPA on the number of lead service lines in each public water system in the state and providing direction to staff on integrating climate change information into risk assessments at nonfederal Superfund sites, as well as other actions. GAO states that it is not adding any additional priority recommendations this year. The total number of priority recommendations remaining is 12. These recommendations involve the following areas:

  • Assessing and controlling toxic chemicals;
  • Reducing pollution in the nation’s waters;
  • Ensuring cybersecurity at EPA;
  • Addressing data and risk communication issues for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure;
  • Managing climate change risks; and
  • Protecting the nation’s air quality.

According to GAO, EPA’s continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations.
Regarding assessing and controlling toxic chemicals, GAO states that EPA’s ability to help protect public health and the environment effectively “depends on credible and timely assessments of risks posed by toxic chemicals,” including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). According to GAO, by implementing the following four priority recommendations in this area, EPA would improve its ability to prepare and issue Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) chemical assessments:

  • To develop the timely chemical risk information that EPA needs to conduct its mission effectively, the EPA Administrator should require the Office of Research and Development (ORD) to re-evaluate its draft proposed changes to the IRIS assessment process in light of the issues raised in GAO’s 2008 report and “ensure that any revised process periodically assesses the level of resources that should be dedicated to this significant program to meet user needs and maintain a viable IRIS database.”
  • To ensure better the credibility of IRIS assessments by enhancing their timeliness and certainty, the EPA Administrator should require ORD to establish a written policy that clearly describes the applicability of the timeframes for each type of IRIS assessment and ensures that the timeframes are realistic and provide greater predictability to stakeholders.
  • The EPA Administrator should direct the Assistant Administrator of ORD to provide more information publicly about where chemical assessments are in the development process, including internal and external steps in the process, and changes to assessment milestones.
  • The EPA Administrator should include in ORD’s strategic plan (or subsidiary strategic plans) identification of EPA’s universe of chemical assessment needs; how the IRIS Program is being resourced to meet user needs; and specific implementation steps that indicate how IRIS will achieve the plan’s objectives, such as specific metrics to define progress in meeting user needs.