The EPA shouldn’t have held a four-day, virtual advisory committee meeting in the midst of the novel coronavirus crisis, one of the committee’s members said Thursday.
“We deserve a better explanation from the EPA about why this meeting had to be held this week,” said Kathleen Gilbert, a retired microbiology and immunology professor from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals, or SACC, is meeting through March 27 to critique a draft evaluation of the health and environmental risks posed by a solvent called trichloroethylene. The chemical, used to clean equipment and make refrigerants, has been linked to cancer diagnoses.
Gilbert said the agency should have postponed the meeting for several reasons. Some panel members couldn’t attend because their jobs required them to be fighting Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, she said. Panel members also have extra work and personal responsibilities due to the pandemic, she added.
The stilted nature of a four-day virtual meeting diminishes the advice committee members could provide, and the public can’t fully participate, Gilbert said. Instead the panel heard “administration speak” from the head of the agency’s top chemicals official, she said.
Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of chemical safety and pollution prevention, previously said the agency had to make the meeting virtual because of travel restrictions and social distancing requirements due to the pandemic.
“This not something that comes to us easily. We greatly value face to face meetings,” Dunn said. “But these are extraordinary times, and we’re proving we can be nimble and we can be effective.”
An EPA spokesman said there were requests to postpone the meeting, but that the agency decided to proceed “after ensuring a majority of SACC members representing a range of diverse perspectives were available and interested in participating through a virtual format.”
About 185 people participated during the first day of the four-day remote meeting, including committee members, staff, and the public, the spokesman said.
But the Environmental Defense Fund also objected to the committee’s meeting during a public comment period Tuesday.
“I must open my remarks by expressing utter dismay at the agency’s decision to hold this meeting in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the very real burden it is placing on individuals and communities across the country, including SACC members,” said Jennifer McPartland, an Environmental Defense Fund senior health scientist.
The EPA is working on many fronts to fight the pandemic, but must meet to evaluate chemical risks as required under the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act, the agency said in an email.
The draft trichloroethylene review is the eighth of 10 draft chemical risk evaluations that the committee will critique. If the agency’s final conclusion is consistent with its preliminary findings, it would have to regulate the solvent in some yet-to-be-determined way in order to protect the public.
The committee will meet once or twice this spring to review the final two risk evaluations, which deal with asbestos and another solvent called perchloroethylene, Dunn said.
The agency is striving to finish as many of the 10 risk evaluations as possible by the law’s June deadline. Dunn already has said the agency would release the asbestos and perchlorethylene assessments after the deadline.