Muckraker: Grist on PoliticsThe U.S. EPA is committed to transparency, representatives of the agency testified yesterday before a subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The hearing was called to look into recent allegations of politicization and secrecy within the agency.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson — the man everyone wants to hear from on the subject — didn’t accept the invitation to attend, so George Gray, EPA assistant administrator for research and development, got to sit in the hot seat.

In his testimony before the Subcommittee on Public Sector Solutions to Global Warming, Oversight and Children’s Health Protection, Gray defended the agency’s policies on keeping meetings with the Office of Management and Budget secret, and criticized recent reports from the Government Accountability Office that have concluded the agency lacks transparency and has allowed politics to undermine science in making decisions to protect the health of both people and the planet.

“I disagree with GAO,” Gray told senators. “It has always been our policy that discussions within our agency and with other agencies be kept within them.” Despite that, Gray maintained that “transparency is very important” to the agency.

EPW Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) rejected Gray’s claims. “You’ve lost all credibility with me,” she told him. “How can you sit there and say that I’m for transparency and then say you agree with OMB that these meetings should be kept secret?”

The hearing addressed a number of concerns about the subversion of science for political reasons within the agency, most notably its recent ruling on ozone standards, a decision which George Bush himself apparently stepped in to undermine. It also examined the new Union of Concerned Scientists survey of 1,600 EPA staff scientists who reported mass politicization and political interference within the agency.

Last week’s firing of Mary Gade also came up. Gade, top regulator at the EPA’s Midwest office, is believed to have been pushed out because of her efforts to force Dow Chemical to clean up dioxin contamination. Committee member Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has taken the lead on investigating the Gade case, said at the hearing that her firing “smacks of similar activities we have seen in the Department of Justice recently,” hinting at the U.S. attorney firings scandal. Gray said he was unable to respond to any questions on the Gade case as it was outside his area of responsibility.

For most of the hearing, Gray took the heat for the absent Johnson, who has turned down several recent invitations to appear before the subcommittee on the subject.

“Johnson declined the opportunity to testify today,” said Whitehouse. “The last few times he did appear, his answers have been less than forthcoming … I suppose if he were here today I’m sure it would be no different. Nevertheless, it would be nice if he showed up.”

Johnson was also scheduled to appear before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the ozone standards today, but canceled yesterday, citing a “recurrence of ongoing back issues stemming from a car accident years ago.”