March 29, 2011 - Environmental Protection Agency - FY 2012 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) wishes to submit the following statement on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 appropriation for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science and technology programs. The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with over 38,000 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 about the Administration’s FY 2012 budget request of $826 million for EPA’s science and technology programs, a 2 percent decrease from FY 2010 enacted levels. Within the S&T proposal, the $584 million set aside for research is a decrease of $13 million for EPA’s scientific efforts. The ASM urges Congress to support increased funding for EPA science and technology programs which are essential to the EPA’s mission.

The EPA’s mission to protect the environment and public health is dependent upon cutting edge technologies and science based risk assessments. The quality of EPA science directly impacts food safety, industry, agriculture, the economy, local ecosystems, the nation’s natural resources, air quality and consequently, public well being. EPA oversight requires the best scientific knowledge available to prevent pollution, enforce environmental standards, remediate contaminated sites, ensure the safety of chemicals and safeguard human health. When working with its partners in academia, industry, nonprofits and government, the EPA is most effective when it can utilize the best science and technology tools to resolve complex challenges such as last year’s devastating Gulf oil spill.

In FY 2012, the EPA is restructuring its scientific research efforts by shifting from problem focused projects to system oriented approaches, integrating related activities into multi-disciplinary projects. As a result, it has realigned its twelve base research programs into four new research programs with greater emphasis on sustainability: (1) air, climate and energy; (2) safe and sustainable water resources; (3) sustainable and healthy communities; and (4) chemical safety and sustainability.

The Administration’s FY 2012 proposed budget for the EPA recognizes the importance of innovative research. Support is increased for the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) extramural grant programs, studies of endocrine disruptors in water systems and computational toxicology. Other program budget increases would upgrade EPA’s e-reporting and monitoring tools, necessary to both expedite risk assessments and improve enforcement of environmental regulations.

EPA Science Protects Public Health and the Environment

EPA oversight of the environment requires the most advanced tools to monitor, measure and evaluate threats to environmental quality. The ASM supports EPA science and technology and is concerned about budget reductions for EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD). ORD manages several laboratories and research centers across the country, distributes significant extramural funding to universities and other stakeholders and supports research across the environmental spectrum. ORD programs address both risk assessment and management in the following focus areas: clean air; drinking water; ecosystem services research; endocrine disruptors; global climate change; human health; human health risk assessment; land; safe pesticides/safe products and water quality.

Within ORD, the Microbiological and Chemical Exposure Assessment Research Division is responsible for evaluating air, water and soil samples for microbial and chemical contaminants. Collected during studies like the NEEAR Water Study, which investigates the human health effects of using recreational waters, these samples are an important tool in safeguarding human, plant and animal health. Methods used by agency scientists to measure human risk factors range from state of the art chemical assays to microbiological assays based on genomics, immunological techniques, and other technologies. EPA laboratories provide reference standards, training and other technical services such as incident investigations to other EPA and federal entities and state laboratories.

ORD supported studies of microbial pathogens and toxic chemicals in environments like indoor air and drinking water often use new analytical tools developed in house by EPA scientists. These EPA innovations include molecular methods to compare the DNA of microbes isolated from the environment with DNA from human isolates as well as animal models to measure pathogen virulence. In the past year, EPA scientists reported results from research on how arsenic is absorbed into the mammalian bloodstream, and others developed a new immunoassay for quantifying antibodies in saliva, a noninvasive test for human infections by waterborne pathogens. In 2010, EPA researchers and collaborators from the Department of Energy received an R&D 100 Award for the CANARY software, which helps water system managers detect a wide variety of chemical and biological contaminants quickly. The free software tool is already monitoring drinking water operations in more than a dozen countries. The recent unveiling of a new high speed robot screening system that can test the potential toxicity of 10,000 different chemicals, highlighted a successful investment in multi year research and cross agency collaboration.

EPA Science Responds to Changing Environments

The EPA mission to protect human health and the environment requires a rapid response to unforeseen situations like natural or human caused disasters and subsequent new threats. It also requires the ability to adjust EPA enforcement activities within evolving circumstances like updated scientific information or new products entering the market. The most dramatic example from the past year was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. EPA personnel quickly initiated assessments of air and water quality and outlined protocols to monitor long term effects of the disaster. EPA was vice chair of the National Response Team, mobilized its own Headquarters and Regional Emergency Operations Center, and provided regular updates to the public and private sectors. Specific EPA activities included lab analysis of air, water, and soil samples; input on cleanup efforts along the shoreline; and collaboration with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to design strategies for monitoring possible toxicity of the oil dispersants utilized. The EPA Administrator now chairs the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, created last September to coordinate remediation of the affected areas.

In the past year, EPA science and technology programs informed the Agency’s efforts to update regulations or propose new recommendations including:

Proposed revisions to the Total Coliform Rule requiring all public water systems to investigate and correct any potential microbial contamination;

  • A new EPA Drinking Water Strategy to improve drinking water technology that simultaneously detects groups of contaminants, continuing EPA’s progress toward ensuring water systems that meet standards for more than 90 contaminants;
  • In March 2011 the EPA proposed adding 30 currently unregulated contaminants (two viruses and 28 chemicals) to those already monitored in drinking water;
  • New air quality standards for sulfur dioxide and stronger standards for nitrous oxide (the first new SO2 standard in almost 40 years and the first for NO2 in 35 years); the SO2 standard may help avoid 54,000 asthma attacks per year;
  • New limits for mercury emissions from cement plants, aimed at a 92 percent reduction from projected 2013 levels, expected to save $7–19 in health costs for every dollar spent;
  • New federal rules, jointly established with the Department of Transportation, that set the first national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards, expected to conserve about 1.8 billion barrels of oil.

EPA Grants Stimulate Innovation in Environmental Sciences

EPA awards grants outside the Agency to academic institutions, state programs, the private sector, non-profit organizations and others to fund an impressive array of projects from laboratory research to local toxic spill cleanup. Within the ORD budget allocation, the National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) supports extramural research that complements EPA’s own research areas, through competitive grants, fellowships, and its Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program. NCER’s Science to Achieve Results, or STAR, grant program currently focuses on drinking water and water quality, pollution prevention using new technologies, the health effects of particulate matter, global change, children’s health, ecosystem assessment and restoration, human health risk assessment, endocrine disrupting chemicals and societal implications.

The ASM commends the proposed FY 2012 increase of $24.7 million for the STAR program which consistently generates innovative technologies and new scientific knowledge that strengthen the EPA mission. EPA also contributes to the nation’s future technical workforce. Under the proposed FY 2012 budget, the Agency would distribute $14 million for STAR Fellowships including support for an estimated 243 continuing fellows and 105 new STAR fellows. In addition, NCER supports tomorrow’s scientists and engineers through its Greater Research Opportunities fellowships for graduate and undergraduate students and its People, Prosperity, and the Planet Program sponsoring undergraduate design competitions that are focused on sustainability. NCER receives approximately 2000–2500 proposals annually for its STAR grants and fellowships, of which only a small percentage can be funded.

S&T Funding Impacts EPA Protection, Present and Future

The EPA must be able to access the latest methods for risk assessment and monitoring to be effective. EPA’s New Chemicals program relies on evolving technical tools to ascertain the potential risks of roughly 1,100 new chemicals, biotechnology products, and nanomaterials submitted each year for pre market review. The Pesticide Program’s three laboratories not only assess chemical residues, but have had to develop test methods for products from genetically modified organisms, biothreat agents like the anthrax bacterium, and the efficacy of antimicrobials in controlling infectious pathogens in healthcare settings. EPA scientists developed assays for measuring pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in waters and biosolids, another example of emerging environmental threats that must be monitored using new or up to date methods.

The EPA’s science and technology programs are the crucial base for effective oversight of the environment. We recommend that Congress increase EPA S&T programs to protect both human health and the environment.