White house, epa headed off chemical pollution study – politico gas explosion in texas


“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

More than three months later, the draft study remains unpublished, and the HHS unit says it has no scheduled date to release it for public comment. Critics say the delay shows the Trump administration is placing politics ahead of an urgent public health concern — something they had feared would happen after agency leaders like Pruitt started placing industry advocates in charge of issues like chemical safety.

"Families who have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water have a right to know about any health impacts, and keeping such information from the public threatens the safety, health, and vitality of communities across our country," Hassan said, citing POLITICO’s reporting of the issue.Details of the internal discussions emerged from EPA emails released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a fellow New Hampshire Democrat, called the delay "an egregious example of politics interfering with the public’s right to know. … [I]t’s unconscionable that even the existence of this study has been withheld until now."

The emails portray a “brazenly political” response to the contamination crisis, said Judith Enck, a former EPA official who dealt with the same pollutants during the Obama administration — saying it goes far beyond a normal debate among scientists.

Still, Pruitt has faced steady criticism for his handling of science at the agency, even before the recent spate of ethics investigations into his upscale travels and dealings with lobbyists. In his year leading EPA, he has overhauled several scientific advisory panels to include more industry representatives and recently ordered limits on the kinds of scientific studies the agency will consider on the health effects of pollution.

The chemicals at issue in the HHS study have long been used in products like Teflon and firefighting foam, and are contaminating water systems around the country. Known as PFOA and PFOS, they have been linked with thyroid defects, problems in pregnancy and certain cancers, even at low levels of exposure.

But some of the biggest liabilities reside with the Defense Department, which used foam containing the chemicals in exercises at bases across the country. In a March report to Congress, the Defense Department listed 126 facilities where tests of nearby water supplies showed the substances exceeded the current safety guidelines.

A government study concluding that the chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought could dramatically increase the cost of cleanups at sites like military bases and chemical manufacturing plants, and force neighboring communities to pour money into treating their drinking water supplies.

Herz, the OMB staffer, forwarded the email warning about the study’s "extremely painful" consequences to EPA’s top financial officer on Jan. 30. Later that day, Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, suggested elevating the study to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to coordinate an interagency review. Beck, who worked as a toxicologist in that office for 10 years, suggested it would be a "good neutral arbiter" of the dispute.

Beck, who started at OMB in 2002, worked on a similar issue involving perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel — linked with thyroid problems and other ailments — that has leached from defense facilities and manufacturing sites into the drinking water of at least 20 million Americans. Beck stayed on at OMB into the Obama administration, leaving the office in January 2012 and going to work for the American Chemistry Council, where she was senior director for regulatory science policy until joining EPA last year.

"It’s why the Obama administration issued a call for scientific integrity policies across the federal government," Kothari said in an email to POLITICO. "Dr. Beck should know firsthand that the Bush administration sidelined science at every turn, given that she spent time at OMB during that time."

Soon after the Trump White House raised concerns about the impending study, EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson reached out to his HHS counterpart, as well as senior officials in charge of the agency overseeing the assessment to discuss coordinating work among HHS, EPA and the Pentagon. Jackson confirmed the outreach last week, saying it is important for the government to speak with a single voice on such a serious issue.

“EPA is eager to participate in and, contribute to a coordinated approach so each federal stakeholder is fully informed on what the other stakeholders’ concerns, roles, and expertise can contribute and to ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and Congressional constituents and partners,” Jackson told POLITICO via email.

In December, the Trump administration’s nominee to head the agency’s chemical safety office, industry consultant Michael Dourson, withdrew his nomination after North Carolina’s Republican senators said they would not support him, in large part because of their state’s struggles with PFAS contamination. Dourson’s previous research on the subject has been criticized as too favorable to the chemical industry.

In 2016, the agency published a voluntary health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, warning that exposure to the chemicals at levels above 70 parts per trillion, total, could be dangerous. One part per trillion is roughly the equivalent of a single grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.