By Matt Shudtz and Evan Isaacson, Center for Progressive Reform
Three influential EPA offices – the Offices of Air, Water, and Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention – share a common attribute. Each is at the center of a defining battle over its future. What is the future of climate regulation at EPA? How will the agency define “waters of the United States” given that the Trump administration is intent on dismantling the Clean Water Rule? And what will public safety officials do with last year’s modifications to the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act? EPA has made bold moves under President Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt on each of these fronts, so you’d be forgiven if you thought that a Senate-approved nominee were at the helm, guiding each office through rough waters. Not so.
This Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing to review nominations for each of those offices, yet another example of how this administration is simultaneously rushing ahead to undo anything it sees as a mark of success for the Obama administration while slow-walking its basic duties like properly staffing agencies.
CPR’s Member Scholars and staff have reviewed two of the nominees’ past work and uncovered a strong bias in favor of promoting polluters’ interests over the public health and environmental concerns that ought to motivate people at the highest levels of EPA.
Michael Dourson, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention
Dr. Michael Dourson has a long and storied career promoting the interests of the chemical industry through sophisticated meddling in risk assessment policy. CPR engaged in a bit of our own sleuthing about Dr. Dourson’s efforts and his firm, Toxicology Excellence in Risk Assessment (TERA), in our 2012 report, Cozying Up: How the Manufacturers of Toxic Chemicals Seek to Co-opt Their Regulators. Key findings from the report most relevant to the committee’s review of Dr. Dourson’s nomination to lead EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention include:
- When state regulators in Wisconsin began to consider limits on the chemical byproducts produced when two widely used herbicides break down in the environment, the manufacturers of the herbicides hired TERA to convene an expert panel to develop a “reference dose” (RfD) for the chemicals. (An RfD is an estimate of the daily oral exposure to a chemical that will not result in adverse health effects.) The result was an article co-authored with government scientists that advocated drinking water limits up to 280 times higher than the limit Wisconsin regulators had set.
- Significant amounts of TERA’s funding is derived from corporations (e.g., Boeing, Alcoa) and government agencies (e.g., Department of Defense) that could reduce their compliance and cleanup costs if risk assessment policies and findings by regulatory agencies do not meet the bold public health goals Congress set in our toxic chemicals, clean air, and clean water laws.
- Chemical manufacturers have taken advantage of agency scientists’ interest in professional development by fostering the growth of organizations like the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and TERA, which blur the lines between professional development and policy advocacy. For instance, after the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council published the Silver Book on risk assessment, TERA set up a committee (the affiliated Alliance for Risk Assessment’s Beyond Science and Decisions) to partner with agency scientists in order to increase their influence over future federal agency risk assessment practices. Government scientists’ participation in such activities undermines EPA’s independence and objectivity.
Based on Dr. Dourson’s past work with TERA, we have serious concerns about his potential biases in favor of regulated industry over EPA’s public health mission, as well as the likelihood that he will pursue partnerships with outside organizations in a way that gives undue influence to regulated parties. On September 19, CPR Member Scholars sent a letter to the committee reviewing Dr. Dourson’s nomination, urging them to reject it.
David Ross, Office of Water
President Trump’s nomination of David Ross to head EPA’s Office of Water is a quintessential example of the fox being tapped to guard the henhouse. Like Scott Pruitt, Ross has made a name for himself representing a number of industries and conservative states in attacks on the agency he is now being asked to help lead.
Both Ross and Pruitt took leading roles in attacking the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort. Given that Pruitt has promoted a version of federalism that tilts the balance of power toward the states and away from EPA and the federal government, it is rich irony that Pruitt and Ross have dedicated much of their recent professional careers to attacking the efforts of other states to protect or restore their own watersheds.
While in private practice, David Ross was among the lead attorneys representing the American Farm Bureau Federation in their failed attempt to derail the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, which CPR examined in our 2015 case brief. That challenge, which a federal judge called “long on swagger but short on specificity,” was nothing more than a determined attempt by national trade associations and ideologically driven state officials (like then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt) to halt a successful model of watershed restoration. Never mind that states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had been working for the better part of four decades on this initiative with the EPA.
And if Ross is confirmed, he and Pruitt can team up once again on another of their strategic collaborations – killing the Clean Water Rule. As Senior Assistant Attorney General for Wyoming, Ross filed suit against EPA for daring to clarify its jurisdictional boundaries under the Clean Water Act.
What do the Clean Water Rule and the Chesapeake Bay cleanup have in common? Both frighten a broad group of resource extraction and development industries, energize far-right groups waging war to shrink the size of government, and result in full employment for industry-friendly attorneys like Pruitt and Ross who are happy to challenge any attempt to make the Clean Water Act work. And if Ross is confirmed by the Senate, they will be in a good position to make sure it doesn’t. Indeed, one of the great environmental challenges of our time is reducing the enormous impact of “nonpoint source” pollution and nutrient runoff, and few attorneys have been a bigger obstacle to progress on this issue than David Ross.