Environmental Protection Agency - FY 1998 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science organization in the world, comprising more than 42,000 members, welcomes the opportunity to testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies and provide comments and recommendations for the fiscal year (FY) 1998 appropriations for the scientific research programs within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The ASM is made up of scientists who work in academic, governmental and industrial institutions worldwide. Microbiologists are involved in research on problems related to human health, the environment, agriculture, and energy. The mission of ASM is to enhance the science of microbiology to gain a better understanding of basic life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health, and for economic and environmental well being.

The Environmental Protection Agency's scientific research and development programs are of interest to many of ASM's members who work throughout the fields of applied and environmental microbiology. Research on environmental microbiology is essential for maintaining air, water, and soil quality; for assuring the safety of potable water supplies; and for providing safe means for waste disposal. Support of applied research in the field of environmental microbiology can lead to enhanced environmental quality and help protect human health. The ASM believes that sound public policy for environmental protection depends upon adequately funded programs of intramural and extramural research based on a system of peer review to assure that support is awarded to research programs having both quality and relevance.

The Administration's overall budget request for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in FY 1998 is $7.6 billion, an increase of $846 million over last year's appropriation. The request includes $555 million for the EPA's Research & Development programs, about $51 million more than the enacted FY 1997 funding level. Our testimony will focus on the EPA's Office of Research and Development programs, including the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, the Graduate Environmental Fellowship Program, the Safe Drinking Water research program, interagency research programs, and the EPA's peer review process.

Last September, the General Accounting Office report, Peer Review, EPA's Implementation Remains Uneven, concluded that peer review practices within the EPA were inconsistent. Some of the EPA's divisions followed adequate peer review procedures while others had little or no peer review for programs that required it. The environmental research programs the ASM is testifying about fall within the EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD). According to the GAO report the ORD "has used peer review for obtaining critical evaluations of certain work products for more than 20 years." The report also stated, however, that the EPA's peer review process could be improved even within the ORD. The EPA has taken action to strengthen the peer review process throughout the agency. The ASM supports efforts to ensure that the highest scientific standards are adhered to in all the federal government's scientific research and development programs to produce sound, reliable science for the nation's benefit.

An important extramural research initiative, the EPA's Science to Achieve Results program, is targeted to receive $115 million, a 21 percent increase over last year's budget of $95 million. This program funds important environmental research proposals from scientists outside the federal government and is a valuable resource for the EPA in finding solutions to many of the complex environmental problems we face today. Grants made under the STAR program last from two to three years and provide about $150,000 of scientific support per grant year. In 1996, the STAR program funded 195 new grants in 45 states and 136 institutions totaling $96.5 million. Additionally, the STAR program works with many other Federal agencies including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Last year 29 STAR grants were made by agencies, other than the EPA, using their own funds. Although it is a high quality program that merits full funding of the Administration's request, the ASM is concerned that the STAR program has focused on environmental chemistry problems and has not adequately funded areas of environmental research with a focus on environmental microbiology. We urge the Congress to fund the STAR program and to insert language that mandates the EPA to take steps to ensure the adequate incorporation and funding of projects and fellowships related to microbiological aspects of environmental quality, especially those having direct impacts on human health such as the microbiological quality of water. In this regard, the ASM also requests that the Congress instruct the EPA to work with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to develop research activities and fellowships that will lead to safer potable waters.

Within the STAR program, the Administration's budget request includes $15 million in FY 1998, for the Graduate Environmental Fellowship Program, a $7 million increase over last year. This is an effort to restore the vital funds deleted by Congress last year. The EPA's Graduate Environmental Fellowship Program is one of the many initiatives the federal government must fully support to ensure that we are prepared to answer the complex scientific questions of the future. Both the public and private sectors will need a steady stream of well trained environmental specialists. The fellowship program encourages promising environmental graduate students to pursue careers in environmentally related fields. The ASM supports the Administration's funding request for this program and encourages the EPA to fund environmental microbiology fellowships in such research areas as bioremediation and the detection of pathogenic microorganisms in potable water supplies and the disinfection of such waters. These fellowships will provide adequate human resources to conduct environmental microbiological research and apply the results of that research to improving environmental quality. Absence of such support will leave a shortage of qualified individuals to assist in the prevention and remediation of environmental problems.

With the President's signing of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Food Safety Act into law this past year, the Administration has proposed increasing EPA's funding by $35 million for the implementation of these new laws. However, the Safe Drinking Water research program would experience a $3.5 million decrease from FY 1997 to bring the funding level to $35.9 million in FY 1998. This is a result of last year's Congressional earmarks which added $5 million to the Safe Drinking Water budget for specific programs. The EPA did not request earmarked funds this year. The net budget result is a decrease for FY 1998 in the Safe Drinking Water research program, unless Congress provides the additional funds.

One of the EPA's highest priorities for the Safe Drinking Water research program is to establish standards to protect human health from microbiological contaminants and disinfectant/disinfection byproducts (M-DBP). The ASM believes it is imperative to provide sound reliable science to support the EPA in its effort to promulgate responsible regulations to protect human health from the risks associated with such contaminants. For example, much research needs to be conducted to control the outbreaks of human exposure to the protozoan Cryptosporidium in our drinking water. To date, hundreds of people have died and many thousands have become ill as a result of exposure to this potentially lethal microbe. In 1993, 400,000 people became infected with Cryptosporidium from Milwaukee's water supply. The ASM urges Congress to increase funding for drinking water research in this area. There are still many questions to be answered about the ways in which to ensure the safety of the nation's drinking water supply. It is essential that the EPA in conjunction with the NIEHS conduct extensive research on the factors that lead to outbreaks of pathogens, such as Cryptosporidium, in our water supply. The EPA must develop advance warning systems that increase protection of public health and enable the nation to avoid future incidents such as the devastating Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee that was disseminated via the municipal potable water supply. The protection of the American people from the potential health risks of exposure to microbial contaminants in their drinking water is reason enough to increase funding for this program.

The ASM supports the many joint research programs supported by the EPA. Three of these programs, currently underway, are the Joint EPA/NSF Partnership for Environmental Research, EPA/NASA Joint Program on Ecosystem Restoration, and the EPA/DOE/NSF/ONR Joint Program on Bioremediation. The ASM urges Congress to continue funding for interagency research programs which seek to find cross-disciplinary solutions to the nation's scientific environmental problems.