By Daniel Rosenberg, Natural Resources Defense Council
EPA oversight and regulation of toxic chemicals has slackened since Nancy Beck, a recent chemical industry executive, took charge, and the New York Times has amassed alarming evidence of this in a story by Eric Lipton. He contrasts the conflicting views and career paths of Dr. Beck, who has spent her career working for chemical companies, with those of a recently-retired and well-regarded EPA career staffer, Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, who has spent her career in public service. Their story is a microcosm of the broader story of how chemical, coal and oil companies have taken over EPA, and the serious negative impact for human health and the environment that we can expect as a result.
Here’s a look at what the Times report reveals:
Beck and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are imposing policies to benefit chemical manufacturers and muzzling dissent by EPA experts.
The Times reports that, as EPA program offices reviewed changes to two key rules EPA’s toxics office was finalizing—the “Framework” rules for implementing the revised Toxic Substances Control Act—they were instructed not to object to the changes. Objections would have slowed and potentially derailed the process for forcing through the changes. Instead, they were told to “concur” with the final rules and include their objections as “comments.” Multiple offices, including EPA’s offices of Water, Enforcement, and its General Counsel submitted concurrence memos, detailing objections to changes that made the final rules inconsistent with the recently revised law. Those changes would likely prevent EPA from accurately or adequately assessing chemicals of concern. The comments were then ignored and the rules were finalized in accordance with industry’s preferences.
The objections by the Program offices are akin to those NRDC and others have raised in legal challenges to the final rules which are pending in federal court. Those objections are important: they go to the fundamental question of whether potentially important sources of exposure to toxic chemicals like perfluorinated chemicals, toxic flame retardants, and asbestos will be accounted for when EPA evaluates chemicals to determine whether they pose an unreasonable risk. It would benefit the industry if those sources of exposure weren’t considered, but it could eliminate important health protections.
EPA is making its decisions based upon the preferences of the chemical industry, not “sound science.”
The Times piece also delves into an early, highly controversial action by EPA—Scott Pruitt’s decision not to implement a proposed ban on food uses of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. The Times describes how EPA’s career attorneys and scientists were pressured to reverse course, and to provide Pruitt with an alternative to granting the NRDC and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) petition. Pruitt’s Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, according to notes of a conversation, said he did not want to be “forced into a box” by the NRDC/PAN petition. EPAs response to our petition was political—not based on science or law. EPA’s political priority was to please chemical manufacturers.
Chlorpyrifos is very toxic to children’s brain development, according to numerous studies. Exposure can increase the risk of learning disabilities. Before Pruitt arrived, the EPA had concluded that using chlorpyrifos in farming was risky to public health in two of its assessments. Last November, EPA found it was so toxic that there was no way to use chlorpyrifos safely. Its use results in exposures in our food and drinking water. It drifts into homes and schools in rural communities. And it poisons farmworkers in fields and people in surrounding areas. But it’s manufactured by Dow Chemical, and Dow has much better access to Scott Pruitt, and President Trump, than farmworkers and children in rural communities.
EPA Toxics Appointee Michael Dourson has a record of downplaying health threats posed by chemicals.
This Senate is set to vote this week on the nomination of Michael Dourson to lead EPA’s Toxics Office as the Assistant Administrator. Nancy Beck is currently leading as Deputy Assistant Administrator, a position that did not require Senate confirmation. Dr. Dourson has a deeply troubling professional history. In working for the chemical industry, he produced evaluations of chemicals—including chlorpyrifos—that downplay their health risks. The Intercept recently reported on an industry-funded paper he wrote, arguing children are in some cases less vulnerable to chemicals than adults. That’s the opposite of the long-standing scientific understanding, endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In his Senate confirmation hearing, Dourson refused to give straightforward answers to basic questions. Senators asked if he would recuse himself from matters related to chemicals he had previously assessed on behalf of chemical manufacturers? Whatever the chemical—toxic flame retardants, PFCs, 1-4 dioxane, “pet coke”—Dr. Dourson read from a script and dodged the question, refusing to commit to recusal.
Confirming Dr. Dourson would place another mill stone around the neck of EPA’s Toxics Program. Under the direction of Dr. Beck and Scott Pruitt its sole mission is undermining TSCA and the pesticide laws to please and benefit chemical manufacturers. If Congress cares about the people and communities being poisoned by toxic chemicals, it should reject Dourson’s bid to join Beck and Pruitt in their campaign to remake EPA in the image of Dow and Exxon.