March 01, 2015

Interview: Jim Jones

Milo Mason

President Obama nominated Jim Jones to be the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) in January 2012, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 1, 2013. He is responsible for managing the office that implements the nation’s pesticide, toxic chemical, and pollution prevention laws, with an annual budget of more than $234 million and more than 1,100 employees. Assistant Administrator Jones’s career with EPA spans more than 27 years and has included numerous senior leadership positions, including deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, deputy assistant administrator for OCSPP, and director of the Office of Pesticide Programs.

NR&E: On behalf of the editorial board, thank you, Assistant Administrator Jones, for this interview. What does your part of the EPA do?

JONES: We’re responsible for assuring chemical safety in the United States, which includes pesticides. We have pretty much the entire regulatory jurisdiction for both pesticides in the United States and other chemicals. And people often use different terms. Commercial chemicals is how we’ve been describing them. These are chemicals that are not drugs; they’re not cosmetics; they’re not pesticides. They fall under our jurisdiction under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). So although not all chemicals are under our jurisdiction, most of the chemicals sold in the United States are, and we’re responsible for ensuring their safety. We also are the agency’s lead on pollution prevention. We’re certainly not the only ones in the agency who manage pollution prevention programs, but we are the point office for that.

NR&E: You deal with and regulate the manufacturing, transportation, and storage of chemicals and their sale?

JONES: We have jurisdiction over all of them. Our focus now in the last several years has been on the consumer exposure to chemicals. We have jurisdiction over all aspects of the chemicals’ lifecycles.

NR&E: Do you have enough resources to do your job?

JONES: Our biggest challenge as it relates to commercial chemicals is that we struggle with a statute that hasn’t lived up to its promise, and I think that’s been well-recognized and well-documented. One of the first things the Obama administration did was articulate principles for the reform of TSCA. So I think it’s less about resources and more about how we’re struggling with a statute that is difficult to implement.

NR&E: It was enacted in 1976 and hasn’t been touched since, right?

JONES: Yes. TSCA creates some interesting problems, but we are trying to behave as if we’re not just a complete prisoner to them, but time will tell. Under TSCA, we’re not required to evaluate existing chemicals. That is not the agency’s duty. We have the authority to look at them, and we are. We’re looking at existing chemicals. We’re doing something that we haven’t tried to do in twenty-eight years—we’re doing risk assessments of chemicals that are priorities, and we will let risk management flow from the risk assessments that we do. The last time we did this was around asbestos in the early nineties; a rule that was ultimately thrown out by the courts, and I think the agency got a little gun shy. We did some really interesting and creative things in the interim, but I think it’s time to try to get back on that horse and see if we can ride.

NR&E: While you’re waiting for Congress to revise and update for another however many years, have you thought about doing negotiated rulemaking and getting all the parties together?

JONES: In the pesticides context, which has a challenging administrative process, what we figured out twenty-five years ago is that we might be able to get results more quickly by negotiating the outcomes. And so we’re going to bring some of those lessons into the toxics space. We’ve got two risk assessments on the street right now that show some risks to consumers and workers. The first thing we’re going to do is sit down with the manufacturers and see if they’re willing to negotiate risk management. If we’re unable to get the needed risk management, we will move into the section 6 regulatory process. We want to do it smartly and quickly, but we’re not going to shy away from using the regulatory tool if we need to.

NR&E: I read that there’s a lot of consensus on a need for updating TSCA and figuring out how to move into the twenty-first century for dealing with chemicals, and that there should be some changes that could be agreed upon. The regulations in the books are still locked in, back when they were published, rather than reflecting what are the needs now.

JONES: It’s more that the statute (and most environmental statutes) can be really tricky, and that’s why it’s useful to revisit them periodically. It took at least three amendments to the pesticide laws before we got it right, and it gave us the authority to make decisions in a timely manner. And the fact that we didn’t nail this right the first time this law was written in 1976 is not unusual.

NR&E: Quite usual. (laughing)

JONES: That’s right. That’s why you go back and you look and there’s never been a revision to reflect needed changes. It’s not so much that it’s out of date; it’s just that the tools that it came up with are ineffective. And you really don’t know these things until you start trying.

NR&E: Practice makes better if not perfect, right? Nothing is better than experience for teaching. Is there a way under the rules that you could change confidentiality? Say what the companies provide you confidentially stays confidential for just ten years and then it can be released to the public?

JONES: We’re focusing on that some. Part of the problem that we have had in the CBI (confidential business information) context is that we have a long-standing practice of letting companies assert CBI without us checking to make sure that it actually meets the requirements. We’re trying to turn that around and start doing our piece of it, which is ensuring that when a CBI claim is made, it is substantiated. And so we’re starting with some of the basics. Let’s just make sure companies are substantiating their claims, which is on us to determine whether or not those claims are met. And we’re actually getting a fair amount of traction around that, and it’s changing behavior not only inside but also outside. Fewer claims get made when there’s going to be a check. Have you substantiated your claim?

NR&E: And then the burden is for the company to show or prove the basis for the claim. If you put it on a time clock, say ten years, would that be a good thing? Could you do it via rulemaking?

JONES: We could. We could do that by rulemaking. It’s actively being discussed by the NGOs and the industry in the context of TSCA reform, so I think it’s probably a better use of my time to see how that plays out rather than starting a rulemaking at this stage.

NR&E: What is the average length of rulemaking in terms of time for the EPA?

JONES: It depends on whether or not you’ve got a mandate. Mandatory duty rulemakings happen much more quickly than discretionary rulemakings. This would be a discretionary rulemaking that would be hugely controversial. You put those two factors together, and they can go on for a very long time.

NR&E: I thought there was lots of consensus. (laughter) Are you grappling with figuring out what to do differently now that the Senate has gone Republican?

JONES: We’ve articulated actions by the agency that are unaffected by who controls Congress. We are assessing chemicals for safety and letting management flow from that. We are working hard to make information more broadly accessible to the public, which actually has the most benefit to formulators—they can make informed choices about chemicals they’re putting in their formulations. And we’re working to see if we can create centers for the adoption of safer chemistry. So we have both a risk assessment/risk management mode that most people associate with EPA, but we are also now using tools that are provided by the Internet, which just didn’t exist fifteen years ago, to make information more accessible about health and safety. Some of the creativity of this program will help consumers make better choices about products they use based on the chemical safety. So we’re continuing down all three of those paths.

NR&E: And that’s nonpartisan or bipartisan right?

JONES: You’d think. (laughter)

NR&E: Are there any other topics that you and your staff have considered tinkering with the regulations to make them more modern and gain a consensus about those issues that need to be modernized?

JONES: There’s no one arguing that we should not be assessing chemicals. And it’s interesting that despite that, there seems to be agreement around that, simply, we haven’t been doing it for twenty-eight years. And so that’s a very big part of what we’re doing and it’s not cheap to do. These are expensive assessments. They’re very complicated chemicals. But there seems to be a consensus around all sides that we ought to be doing that. And so we are doing that. Inevitably—and there already have been—there will be debates about the science and that’s going to happen and that is happening. But no one’s arguing that we shouldn’t be doing it. And so we’re doing it as aggressively and as effectively as we can.

NR&E: Well, the initial law said there’s that catch-22—that you had to make a finding of potential toxicity before you could study the chemical.

JONES: To compel the generation of data, you have to have some reason to be concerned. That’s the catch-22 that you’re describing.

NR&E: And you’ve gotten over that hurdle for a lot of chemicals?

JONES: Well, there’s an interesting phenomenon. A couple of things happened. After the asbestos rule, this office engaged the industry in a voluntary effort to generate health and safety data. It was called the high production volume challenge, and we got a lot of data coming out of that. That was happening in the 1990s and early 2000s. And then around the same time, a little bit later, the Europeans implemented a program known as REACH, which required a generation of a lot of health and safety data. And so there’s way more health and safety data generated.

NR&E: That you can just take off the shelf?

JONES: Right. There’s less of a need for us to try to do those rules compelling the generation of the data. There are issues associated with accessing it, but we feel we have the ability to do that. We’re struggling much less on a day-to-day basis with at least the chemicals that are highest priority. We just started moving some chemicals a little farther down the priority list.

NR&E: And how do you prioritize those?

JONES: We went through a process a couple summers ago to set priorities, and we basically said can we look first at chemicals that had certain characteristics: persistence, bioaccumulation, carcinogens, reproductive and developmental toxicants, chemicals that people are exposed to, chemicals that children are exposed to. We articulated these criteria, and we got some public comment on it. Then we began to evaluate chemicals against them. We’ve identified more than eighty chemicals that are our highest priorities, and those are the ones that we’re going to assess first. Because we were transparent about how we set the priorities. We were transparent about the criteria used. We were transparent about what the chemicals are. We actually just updated our list about a month and a half ago to reflect changes in the marketplace. Some chemicals that were on that list are just not being produced in high volumes anymore, so we took them off and replaced them with other chemicals that were.

NR&E: I want to ask you about a couple things more—neonicotinoids and nanotechnology. Are you relooking at neonicotinoids?

JONES: Yes, it’s one of the most interesting challenges that we have. The neonicotinoids have been pointed to by a number of experts and individuals as being responsible for some of the bee health issues that we’ve had, not only in the United States but also around the world. The agency (as well as the government broadly) views the bee health issues as being the result of a host of factors that are confronting honeybees (particularly but not exclusively). These factors include lack of forage, which just means diet. They don’t have enough healthy food. There are diseases. There are diseases in bees that are being transmitted by invasive pests, such as the varroa mite, which not only transmits disease but also weakens the ability of a colony to survive. Bees are also exposed to pesticides. We think that all of these factors are making it a challenging environment for honeybees in the United States and other parts of the world. Because I’ve only got jurisdiction over one of those things—the pesticide piece—we’re looking at it in two ways. One is that we’re looking at all pesticides that are acutely toxic to bees and trying to figure out if there are strategies to create greater separation between such pesticides and bees. But we’re also looking at chemicals individually, first being the neonicotinoids. Those are compounds that we are paying particular attention to. A couple of the things, first off, that are often just lost in the public discourse around the bee issue is that bees are insects. That should be obvious to all of us. They are insects that are commercially raised to specifically be in an agricultural setting. You rent them out to a farmer who is trying to grow a crop. When they’re not in a crop pollinating, the practice in the United States has been that they’re actually living on a farm the honeybee producer doesn’t own just out of the neighborliness of the farmer. That farmer is also probably using pesticides.

We’ve created a system where this commercial operation has a product (honeybees) that is sensitive to one of the other inputs used in these commercial operations (pesticides). What we’re trying to do is figure out how we can create greater separation between one input, insecticides that are used by farmers, and another input, commercial honeybees.

NR&E: You’re trying to figure out what pesticides are damaging to the honeybee or just how to just separate them from or replace those harmful pesticide inputs?

JONES: Both. It’s going to be really tricky because, as I said, insecticides kill insects. Bees are insects. There are some insecticides that are less toxic to bees; there are some that are more. The overwhelming majority of insecticides are toxic to honeybees on an acute basis.

We’re looking at all insecticides and there are a couple of non-insecticides to figure out how to create this greater distance. And then neonicotinoids, as well as a number of other insecticides, we’re looking specifically at their impact. We have a pretty good handle on their impact on an acute basis. The real challenging aspect is to try to understand if there are longer-term sub-chronic or chronic effects that are the result of a honeybee being in and around a field, getting exposed to the neonic in pollen or nectar, bringing it back to the hive, and although it may not kill that bee, over time it keeps bringing a chemical back to the hive.

We have required the manufacturers of the neonicotinoids (and there will be some other chemicals that will get the same data requirement) to perform whole hive studies simulating this phenomenon. The honeybee worker bee goes out from the hive to a treated field, gets pollen, nectar that’s got neonicotinoids, and brings it back. And although that honeybee may have been fine, the manufacturers look at what happens to the hive over time.

NR&E: That accumulation.

JONES: Right. And does that accumulation cause some effect on the hive? We recognize that everybody is impatient with the pace of the neonicotinoid review. But to understand the impact of these chronic long-term impacts on a hive, one actually has to study it. These studies take some time, and we actually perform them over winter too. Sometimes you have a phenomenon where during the season when the bees are actively foraging and bringing it back, nothing might happen. But then they go into this sort of quasi-hibernation in the winter, and when the grower comes back in the early spring, they’re all dead. So we want to make sure the study includes that part of the bee cycle. That’s happening right now, and we’ll make decisions when we’ve got that data as well as all of the other data. A lot of data is being generated in universities, NGOs, and other governments. We’re going to include all that as well.

NR&E: How do you say how important bees are to U.S. agriculture and its economy? Nanotechnology. Are you dealing with it?

JONES: Yes, in our pesticides program we’ve actually made a couple of decisions on chemicals that have a nanomaterial in them, and the statute pretty clearly treats them as any other product, so they go through the same health and safety testing as any other product. In the TSCA universe, we actually have a rule that’s under review at Office of Management and Budget (OMB) right now. I really can’t give you many specifics around it, but we have a proposal under review that will allow us to more comprehensively look at nanomaterials.

NR&E: Any time estimate on that you think? Or any escape velocity from the OMB?

JONES: The original rule sat over there for a very long time, and we agreed to withdraw it for the resubmitted rule if they would stick to the ninety-day review time and OMB, agreed to that. It went over about thirty-five days ago, so there’s about fifty-five days left on that clock. There has been plenty of engagement since the rule was resubmitted.

NR&E: I’m sure that the chemical community will look forward to that. What’s the work plan chemicals program?

JONES: That was the process by which we prioritized the universe of chemicals for risk assessment. When we came up with the list of eighty or so, we referred to it as our work plan. We wanted to use a very objective, neutral word; a word that in and of itself would not create panic. It’s a work plan. It’s the chemicals that we’re going to work on.

NR&E: Do you plan any changes in 2015 to that work plan?

JONES: Well, as I said, we revised it about a month and a half ago. We dropped some things that are no longer produced in high volumes in the United States and added some other things that are.

NR&E: So how many chemicals would be reviewed?

JONES: It’s kind of tricky to tell because we’re looking at flame retardant clusters and although it’s four clusters, it involves more than twenty-two chemicals. So it depends on how one counts the flame retardants. And then we have another four or five individual chemicals, one is 1-bromopropane. Next year the number will be quite high because the flame retardant piece is multiple chemicals in a cluster.

NR&E: Green chemistry is a passion for some people, and because the twentieth anniversary of the Presidential Green Chemistry Awards is coming up, do you have any plans to celebrate that?

JONES: Yes, we do. One of the things that we’ve been trying to do in this space is to make it more of a program and not just an awards ceremony. For many years we had this very robust competition where we’ve had remarkable chemistries identified and recognized, and we’re trying to figure out how to go beyond just recognition and do things to help facilitate adoption. One of the things that we have been doing and we’re going to continue to do is just spend more time with the companies that win this award to understand what are the barriers that they face and what are the opportunities that they see. Sometimes the barriers are things that we can work on. And we’ve identified barriers, and we are committing to working on them and just understanding what the challenges are that they face. The other thing that we are looking at is how we take this universe of remarkable technologies and not just the winners—all of the nominees—because the difference between winning and not winning can be pretty thin sometimes. And so we had this database of technologies, and we’re trying to think about how we can organize that information and just make it easier for others to see what tools are available to solve environmental problems. We’re trying to take it above and beyond recognition and move into how do we then deploy this technology, which can really be quite remarkable in its power. There’s just a host of issues. And it’s not just about inherent safety. They often address issues such as climate change; water use, which is related to climate change; issues around waste generation. So we’re just trying to be more active in how we operate in the green chemistry space.

NR&E: Speaking of climate change, there’s a smog rule that’s come out. Because you worked for a while in the Office of Air, do you think Administrator McCarthy’s job is any tougher now with the Republican Senate or do you see any changes in her approach or EPA’s approach?

JONES: I think it would be more oversight, but I think that’s fundamental. The mission is the same, and EPA makes science-based decisions that are grounded in the law. When that’s how you operate, it really doesn’t matter how much oversight you have because you can always explain yourself. That’s how I think Administrator McCarthy was when she was the assistant administrator of Air and Radiation; that’s how she’s operated as the administrator in the last Congress, and I’m confident that’s how she’ll operate going forward.

NR&E: EPA’s Tox21 program. I read about the robots and the high-speed screening system. Is that a big part of testing, and how is that working out?

JONES: We’ve partnered with our colleagues in the Office of Research and Development (ORD) around this for about eight years, and it was never something that we saw as an immediate solution to the challenges that we face for too many chemicals to take too long to evaluate for safety. But we and our colleagues saw it as the future. Even though I may not be here when that future becomes real, that engagement has been very active for a long time and will continue to be. We are right now just beginning to see some of the hard work that’s occurred in ORD for the last eight years, coming in to have regulatory relevance, which is really exciting. We’re seeing it in the endocrine disruptor screening program first, where some of the techniques that have already been developed in their CompTox program may allow us to replace more quickly a few of the assays that were developed for the endocrine disruptor screening program.

NR&E: It just seems like it can revolutionize toxicity testing.

JONES: Yes. And we’ve got to approach it in a robust, scientific way. It needs to be at a minimum as good as the existing models. Ideally it will be better. And we’ve got to do it in a way that it is peer reviewed, but also so that there’s enough public involvement that people have this broad acceptance of it. And that’s how we and our colleagues in ORD are approaching it. It’s a very exciting time. I’m confident that the next generation of people in my job will be huge beneficiaries of the technology, which will make the American public huge beneficiaries of the technology. We’ll be able to make more decisions more quickly, and ideally they’ll be better decisions because we’ll be better able to understand chemical hazard and safety. It’s a long and hard lift, but we’re seeing some serious progress.

NR&E: Before I ask you about what’s the most important moment you’ve had in your federal career, I want to go back to a question I forgot to ask you. If TSCA doesn’t get changed, do you see states stepping in on TSCA matters?

JONES: They have been, and I think some will continue to.

NR&E: Do you see any good coming from that?

JONES: It’s an indication that the federal government is not meeting the needs of the people. At some point I would think that would be compelling enough to make the federal government be effective in a way that the people feel well served. And that means statutory change in time.

NR&E: Because the bottom line is the consumer, and the American people need to be confident in their chemicals and live healthy.

JONES: Yes, that’s right.

NR&E: What are the top two or three things you enjoy most about your job?

JONES: In this arena of chemical safety, the things you work on are so real to every person in the country every day, even if they don’t know it or realize the importance of it. You have already had, by the time you’ve gotten here this morning, dozens, if not hundreds, of exposures to the things that we’re responsible for. And so our ability to help ensure that everybody else is safe just feels very real and very relevant, and it just matters a lot. Again, whether people know it or not is a different matter. We’re not here for the glory or a parade. We’re here to make things better, and that makes this job, and not just my job—the whole thousand people who work in this space. I think it’s why we find it to be compelling work.

NR&E: So what’s the most important moment you’ve had in your federal career?

JONES: You know, it wasn’t really a moment, and I think that that’s true for people who work in the government. I had the opportunity, and I think it’s a pretty unusual one, to work on the Food Quality Protection Act—the pesticide law that governs pesticides in foods in the United States—as a young staffer, and the administration put a bill together and then, just by chance, I ended up going from working on the legislative piece to moving into the program, and then spent the next ten years on the implementation. And this is a statute that required EPA to evaluate every food used pesticide, more than 400 of them, in ten years. EPA has had a hard time, as most federal agencies that get deadlines, meeting those kind of deadlines. They’re rarely met. Not only did I get to work on the implementation of it, but I also actually ended up being the office director for the last three years of the ten year requirement.

The statute broke the review into parts—you had to do this much in the first four years, this much in the next three years, and in the last three years you had to get them all done. Well, anything that was easy to meet was done in the first two deadlines, and the only things left were the really hard stuff, and we did it. And there wasn’t a moment, but…

NR&E: That was a ten-year moment…

JONES: That was a ten-year moment! (laughter) That felt very gratifying.

NR&E: Anything I should have asked you or you want me to ask you that I haven’t?

JONES: One of the things that we’re working on right now that I think is really interesting and innovative—if it works it could move the chemical safety space in a really powerful way while costing virtually nothing and not regulating. We have long had a consumer safety label that nobody knows about because when we launched it, we didn’t quite nail the marketing of it. And so we gave it a name that people can’t translate. I think it’s the name. Some people like to say it’s the logo. And the name is “Design for the Environment.” And that does not translate to a consumer to mean safer chemicals—it just doesn’t. Though it might make them feel good about other aspects of a product. So consumer product companies—although they have been aggressive about being members of it—we have 2,500 products that are part of this program, and there’s hardly an American in the country who knows about it because it’s never really been visible. The companies who have it don’t market it much because their testing tells them it doesn’t help them because nobody understands it.

Here we have this very robust, I like to say, chassis, but not a very sporty body of the car. And so we’re redesigning the logo, leaving the chassis the same and in a way that we believe it will speak to consumers. And we only know that because we’re letting consumers tell us what will do it. We’re working with the partners, the companies who are part of this, the 500 partners. We’ve got 2,500 products, 500 partners, and you’ve never heard of it. Have you ever heard of it? Have you ever seen anything with this on the logo?

NR&E: No…

JONES: It’s apparently ubiquitous. (laughter)

NR&E: Right, right. Do the companies get any legal leg up on the liability front, if they’re members of this?

JONES: No, no…

NR&E: Are they less likely to get sued?

JONES: They’re only less likely to get sued because we’ve looked at every chemical in it, and then we judged them all to meet the criteria, and the criteria are quite robust. But that in and of itself does not give you any liability protection. We don’t offer any protection.

NR&E: Ah. And if the EPA wasn’t here and the marketplace, the free market ran, would we have a lot more problems out there?

JONES: You better believe it. DDT would still be on the market if EPA weren’t here. We might not be here, but DDT would be. (laughter) There is little doubt about it.

PCBs would be still being sold, DDT would be on the market. Dozens, dozens, dozens of chemicals that would still be on the market if EPA…

Lead would be in paints. Lead would be in gasoline. Mercury would be everywhere. As I said, we may not be here, but the chemicals would be. (laughter)

NR&E: Just checking for my free market advocates…(laughter).

JONES: I’m an economist by training, and I think the free market is a great thing. It’s when there are all these externalities that are not in the interest of the person creating the externalities because they just see the benefits. They don’t have to worry about it. That is when the government needs to step in and say, actually, you’ve got to make sure these externalities are accounted for.

NR&E: Right.

JONES: And when you do that accounting you often decide actually you really can’t sell that. It may be working for you, but it’s not working for everybody else. Yeah.

NR&E: The data’s sometimes the best economics.

JONES: Exactly. Like I said, you can sell all the DDT you want, but if you’ve killed off everything, what kind of a product can you possibly have? Well, you’d have, here in the United States, no birds and no other wildlife.

NR&E: Jim, thank you for the job you do and this interview.

JONES: Thank you.

Milo Mason