April 1, 2010 - Environmental Protection Agency - FY 2011 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 appropriation for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science and technology programs. The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 40,000 members. The ASM mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and environmental well-being.

The ASM is concerned by the Administration’s proposed FY 2011 budget of $847 million for EPA’s science and technology activities, a 0.11 percent increase. The ASM recommends that Congress fund the EPA science and technology programs with at least $888 million, or a 5percent increase, in FY 2011 to allow for inflation and program growth.  The ASM strongly supports the Administration’s proposed FY 2011 budget of $87.2 million for the STAR program, an increase of $26 million and encourages Congress to fully fund this imperative grants program.   

EPA’s science and technology programs are essential for the nation’s primary regulatory agency to fulfill its mandate to protect environmental and human health. The EPA has vast oversight responsibilities with direct consequences for human health, from ensuring safe drinking water to tackling complex challenges like global climate change. The ASM is greatly concerned that previous research gains will be quickly eroded unless adequate support is provided in FY 2011 and beyond.  Without such support, the EPA cannot maintain the base of scientific knowledge and technologies necessary for its mission.

Office of Research and Development (ORD)

The stronger the science, the higher the credibility and efficiency of EPA risk assessments and regulatory decisions. The EPA’s wide ranging portfolio is managed by its Office of Research and Development (ORD), which funds R&D at EPA laboratories around the country and at external institutions like universities and industry. Although the EPA’s research is tied to its regulatory needs, funded projects are selected through peer review and careful planning to assure independent results of most value to protecting human health and the environment. It is vital to our national well-being that EPA science receives solid fiscal support.

In January, the EPA announced seven priorities that will guide its environmental stewardship in FY 2011 and beyond:  1) taking action on climate change, 2) improving air quality, 3) ensuring the safety of chemicals, 4) cleaning up our communities, 5) protecting America’s waters, 6) expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice, and 7) building strong state and tribal partnerships.

The agency has faced major expansion of its regulatory duties in recent years, intensified by rising societal concerns over deteriorating environments and global climate change. EPA regulators and policymakers must have access to up to date scientific tools and expertise, which unfortunately can be quickly undermined by budget shortfalls. External reviews, like the National Research Council’s 2009 report on EPA risk assessment, have criticized the agency’s tech dependent capabilities. The ORD mission is to perform problem specific research and development, provide responsive technical support to agency wide activities, integrate research from other scientific partners like academia, and provide leadership in risk assessment and management, as well as strategies against emerging environmental issues.

Most of the EPA’s basic and applied research occurs in the ORD network of three national laboratories, four national centers, and two offices located at 14 sites across the United States, including the National Center for Environmental Assessment and the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory. The life sciences, the environmental sciences, and engineering comprise most of the EPA’s research portfolio. The EPA balances its research strategies to both solve current problems and anticipate future demands, and has realigned its research into integrated, multidisciplinary investigations that are more appropriate to today’s challenges. The ORD’s current key initiatives include areas of particular interest to the ASM’s membership: microbial pathogens and disinfection by-products in drinking water, beaches and recreational waters, and global change.

Last April, the EPA issued its update on the effects of global change on regional US air quality. The report synthesizes data from new EPA funded intramural and extramural research, and future reports will focus on other concerns like particulate pollutants. In 2009, the agency also issued a draft finding that greenhouse gases are impacting human health, created incentives for innovations to counter emissions, and outlined new research to better understand how nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes might harm human health and the environment.  The EPA reports are founded on extensive scientific evaluations, and emerging technologies that impact EPA-regulated sectors like nanotechnology and biotechnology, mandate robust funding for ORD programs. Science and Technology increases in the FY 2011 budget, for example, would purchase next generation tools in computational toxicology needed to strengthen risk assessment capabilities.

Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Grants & Fellowships

The ASM strongly supports the Administration’s proposed FY 2011 budget for the EPA’s extramural Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, of $87.2 million, a $26 million increase over FY 2010.  The STAR program distributes grants and graduate student fellowships to academic and other institutions. Student fellowships also advance our national initiative to enhance science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The FY 2011 budget includes $17.3 million for EPA fellowships, $14 million of which is allocated to STAR fellowships, an increase of more than $6 million. 

The STAR program provides research grants in environmental science and engineering disciplines to complement EPA’s own research. The FY 2011 increases will underwrite selected research areas like air quality and green infrastructure. STAR funding opportunities are developed in cooperation with other EPA offices, to focus on areas significant to the EPA mission. An example is the STAR grant that, along with funding from the Department of Agriculture, yielded a 2009 report showing a municipal ban on lawn fertilizer reduced riparian phosphorus levels. STAR grants awarded last year included four to universities to study relationships between the composition of particulate matter and human health effects. Another ten grants went to universities, state health departments, and one research institute to develop the next generation of markers or indicators that measure the progress of environmental programs in protecting human health. These will leverage health outcomes data in a new way to assess whether regulatory programs are reducing disease incidences. The current STAR funding cycle includes grant solicitations for research to assess potential food allergy issues caused by genetically engineered plants.

The ASM supports the Administration’s increased support for STAR fellowships; one of several EPA sponsored programs that subsidize STEM education and students in environment related disciplines. The FY 2011 increase will underwrite about 240 new fellowships, in addition to the roughly 120 continuing STAR fellows. The program has awarded about 1,500 STAR fellowships since it began in 1995. At least one student from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico has received a STAR fellowship. Recently awarded fellowships include support for quantifying climate change effects on water quality, and modeling and monitoring CO2 sequestration to protect drinking water sources. The FY 2011 awards will be distributed in research areas that are EPA priorities, including climate and clean air, nanotechnology, and green infrastructure. STAR fellowships invest in future technologies, greater scientific understanding, and the nation’s growing environmental workforce.

Clean and Safe Water

By protecting the nation’s water resources, the EPA guarantees that Americans benefit from safe drinking water, clean recreational waters, improved watershed environments, and healthy ecosystems.

The Drinking Water Research Program supports relevant EPA regulatory actions and is specifically tasked to provide the scientific foundation for:

  • protecting the quality and sustainability of water resources
  • ensuring that treatment facilities control waterborne contaminants  
  • understanding and managing health risks associated with public water supplies
  • preventing and mitigating impacts of distribution and storage on water quality
  • improving infrastructure reliability and sustainability

There are roughly 154,000 public water systems in the United States, with highly diverse infrastructures and populations served. Oversight of US drinking water supplies demands a multifaceted ORD research program able to respond to shifting challenges like emerging waterborne pathogens. Sound scientific evidence helps policymakers formulate criteria documents and guidances to help states adopt optimal water quality standards.

EPA funded scientists develop methods, models, and tools to analyze and manage waterborne health risks, as well as improve the nation’s drinking water infrastructure. Risk assessment tools include cutting edge assays for microorganisms like Helicobacter pylori, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and blue-green algae in source waters and storage systems. In FY 2009, EPA released its third list of drinking water contaminants encountered in public water systems that might require regulation, including 104 chemical and 12 microbial contaminants. The agency continues to collect data on these contaminants and will decide by 2013 whether new regulations are needed. Last year, the agency also reported that its ongoing improvements in the Pacific Islands Territories were delivering safe water to 80 percent of the population served by community systems, compared to 39 percent in 2003. In another multi year effort, on the US-Mexico border, approvals last year to construct additional EPA funded water and wastewater systems will benefit more than 90,000 people.

The Water Quality Research Program supports the EPA’s mission to protect or restore the aquatic ecosystems tied to the nation’s rivers, lakes, coastal regions, and other watersheds. Water quality clearly affects economic well being and public health, whether related to beach vacations or an urban watershed. Researchers provide the scientific background for EPA’s regulatory decisions and policies on surface and ground water quality. They have contributed methods to remove harmful algal blooms from fisheries, tools to assess efficacy of wastewater treatment, and models of pollution impacts on specific wildlife populations. Sludge from wastewater facilities can be further processed for use as biosolids fertilizer. About half of all biosolids are being recycled into soil, although they are applied to a small fraction of the nation's agricultural land. As use increases, EPA is evaluating the health effects on nearby watersheds.

EPA’s water quality responsibilities have increased steadily; for example, the number of EPA regulated water sources has exploded in recent years from about 100,000 to nearly a million, as risk assessment points beyond the traditional sources like factories to more dispersed sources like feedlots. One third of US waters are evaluated by the 50 states; almost half of these waters do not meet state standards, and the percentage of “impaired waters” is rising. In January, EPA announced nearly $10 million in “beach grants” to help protect swimmers against waterborne illness; the agency estimates that US beaches serve 180 million Americans, support more than 28 million jobs, and generate billions of dollars for businesses each year. The EPA also is accepting challenges of larger scope, such as its new five year plan to restore the Great Lakes, which hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, and its Mississippi River Basin initiative, both funded in the proposed FY 2011 budget. In November, ORD released its updated, five-year plan for research to support EPA enforcement of water quality. FY 2011 funding will provide much needed support for the expanding demands on the ORD’s water assessment capabilities.

Climate Change

Climate change threatens our environment and is a challenge to both society and science. It is considered by many to be one of the defining issues of the 21st century. Science and politics have intertwined as governments determine the best ways to mitigate or prevent the negative effects of climate change, as well as how to adapt to the eventual outcomes. So much is unknown, and scientists are trying to understand how climate change might impact both biological and physical systems worldwide from altered disease demographics and human displacement to disrupted microbial communities. The FY 2011 budget request for EPA science and technology includes $22 million for research on air quality and climate change.

The EPA is one of 13 US federal agencies and departments comprising the US Climate Change Science Program, established in 2002 to coordinate and integrate scientific research on climate change, as well as assist in federal policymaking. The ORD’s Global Change Research Program (GCRP) provides methods, models, assessments, and other decision support tools to study the impacts on air and water quality, aquatic ecosystems, public health, and socioeconomic systems in the United States. The EPA utilizes GCRP results to support informed discussions on climate change, prepare its policy recommendations, and investigate potential adaptation strategies. GCRP research has included studies on protecting drinking water systems from rises in sea level, and preventing climate related sewer system overloads.

The GCPD program released last year’s EPA report on global change effects on air quality and ground level ozone, concluding that climate change must be considered by air quality managers as they develop future pollution control strategies. In February, the ORD announced STAR grants awarded to 25 US universities, a total of $17 million, to study climate change as related to allergies, air quality, water resources, or carbon sequestration. The FY 2011 budget requests increases for EPA research related to carbon capture and sequestration technology. In 2010, EPA will work with states on experimental carbon sequestration projects, to gather data regarding future large scale commercial applications. In January, the agency announced new grants available for research on methane capture and use.  Additionally, the EPA conducts research on the environmental impact of biofuels, relevant to future alternative full policies.

Conclusion

Advances in science and technology shape how we choose to protect our environment, whether restoring ecosystems damaged by pollution or wrestling with the myriad causes and effects of climate change. Challenges faced by the EPA are those faced by people worldwide. Overcoming these challenges depends on strong and reliable funding to support EPA’s science and technology programs.

The EPA requires sound scientific information to meet its mandates to protect human health and the environment. The ORD is an integral component for conducting research needed to answer many of the challenges we face, such as climate change, renewable energy, and provision of clean and safe water.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the subcommittee as it considers the FY 2011 appropriation for the EPA.

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