White House Drops Effort to Standardize Agency Risk Assessments

September 19, 2007 10:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration backed away from stringent new risk-assessment standards that federal agencies must meet to justify new regulation.

But at the same time, the administration may have made it somewhat easier for businesses and the White House to question such assessments. The move continues a pattern under the Bush administration of raising new barriers to regulation, critics said.

Risk assessments are scientific judgments about the hazards of various activities. Agencies rely on them in determining standards for exposure to chemicals, for example. They involve considerable scientific uncertainties.

In conducting assessments, agencies have been using a 1995 set of guidelines from the Clinton administration. In January 2006, the Bush administration proposed a new set of mandatory standards that would have made assessments more detailed and also more uniform among agencies. It also would have opened more of the process to challenge from industry and other interested parties.

Environmentalists worried that the 2006 proposal would unduly hamper agency actions. It also came under criticism from the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year.

In response, the Bush administration budget office Wednesday said it was updating the 1995 memo with new guidelines and upgrading the quality of science used in the regulatory process. The memo "is one aspect of our efforts to improve the quality of the information…the federal government produces and relies on," Susan Dudley, the administration's regulatory chief, said in a statement. She added in an interview that the changes are in keeping with recent recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences and update an older set of guidelines, and include no new mechanisms for regulatory challenges.

Robert Shull of Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group, said the memo could raise new barriers to regulation, by making it easier for businesses to challenge risk assessments under a 2001 law that aims to improve the scientific data that agencies use. It also gives the White House more input over how risk assessments are done, he said, thus exposing them to more political influence.

The Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, a Washington group that seeks to reduce regulatory burdens on businesses, in a statement on its Web site said the memo "strengthens federal agencies' risk assessments in several ways, but in particular by expressly incorporating the Data Quality Act requirements into the agency risk assessment process, as required by law."

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com

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