News Brief

Obscure Channel Allows Industry to Weaken Environmental Regulations

A new report argues that the White House’s little-known Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is a lobbyist’s dream.

FEMA trailers like those pictured here after Hurricane Katrina led to new federal rules limiting formaldehyde emissions from building materials. Those rules were struck down in secret with the stroke of a pen, claims a new report.

Photo: Alice Welch for USDA. License: CC BY 2.0.
Industry lobbyists have outsized and clandestine influence on federal regulations through an obscure White House office with little public accountability, according to a special report to ProPublica written by Heather Rogers.

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) was initially intended to add checks and balances to the process of developing environmental and other regulations, says Rogers, but she argues that instead it has become a place for lobbyists to substantively change or even eliminate these regulations without public knowledge or input.

Environmental regulations, including some affecting building materials, have been targeted successfully. For example, “prompted by evidence that formaldehyde fumes were sickening Hurricane Katrina survivors living in FEMA trailers, Congress passed a law in 2010 calling for tighter limits on the chemical,” writes Rogers. “While the rule was at OIRA, industry representatives met five times with officials from the office,” she continues, and “during OIRA’s review, the scientific findings were challenged … and were ultimately changed.”

The medical costs of asthma due to formaldehyde exposure were removed from the economic analysis, making it more favorable to industry, which had argued the regulations were too expensive for the amount of good they would do. Yet OIRA gave no scientific reasons for the change, concludes Rogers.

The report cites a number of other environmental regulations that were similarly influenced, including limits on occupational exposure to silica dust and on coal-ash dumping from power plants.

Although some White House officials have denied that the office lacks transparency, investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2003 and 2009 concluded otherwise; GAO recommended in 2009 that all agencies should publish changes made to rules during OIRA reviews—a recommendation that has not been implemented, though in April 2014, OIRA began publishing a searchable database of meetings held with parties outside the administration.

For more information:

ProPublica

propublica.org

Published August 13, 2014

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