EPA exposed for hiding chemical risks, favoring corporate interests

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a long and well-documented history of questionable conduct when it comes to regulation of chemicals important to the profit centers for many large and powerful corporations.  Numerous examples show a pattern of agency actions that allow for the use of dangerous chemicals by consumers, farmers, groundskeepers and others despite evidence of harm.

Documents and other evidence, including information provided in public disclosures by multiple EPA scientists, reveals actions in which EPA managers have intentionally covered up risks associated with certain chemicals. According to the evidence from these EPA insiders, pressure from chemical manufacturers, chemical industry lobbyists and from certain U.S. lawmakers drives internal agency manipulations that protect corporate interests but endanger public health.

Evidence indicates the misconduct dates back decades and has occurred in administrations led by Democrats and Republican alike.

A research project sponsored by Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics said while the EPA has “many dedicated employees who truly believe in its mission,” the agency has been “corrupted by numerous routine practices,” including a “revolving door” between EPA and industry in which corporate lawyers and lobbyists gain positions of agency power; constant  industry lobbying against environmental regulations; pressure from  lawmakers who are beholden to donors; and meddling by the White House.

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Background: Blowing the whistle

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21 Century Act, signed into law on June 22, 2016, was the first substantive reform to Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The law requires EPA to make an affirmative determination on whether a new chemical substance presents an “unreasonable risk” to human health or the environment under “known, intended or reasonably foreseen conditions of use.” See information here.

Despite the law, the EPA has failed to make valid determinations about the risk presented by numerous chemicals.

In June 2021, four EPA scientists, each working within the agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and
Pollution Prevention (OCSPP), publicly accused the the EPA of deliberate tampering with chemical risk assessments. The four whistleblowers made their complaints public through a group called Public  Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

In a June 28 letter to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, PEER said the four EPA scientists were providing “disturbing evidence of fraud and corruption,” involving “deliberate tampering with chemical risk assessments conducted under the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), including PFAS (a.k.a. “forever chemicals”), and the deletion of potential health effects without the knowledge or consent of the human health assessors.”

The letter further states:

“All four clients have experienced numerous instances where their risk assessments were changed
by their managers or by colleagues in response to direction by management. These changes
include –
● Deleting language identifying potential adverse effects, including developmental toxicity,
neurotoxicity, mutagenicity, and/or carcinogenicity;
● Major revisions that alter the report conclusions to indicate that there are no toxicity
concerns despite data to the contrary; and
● Risk assessments being reassigned to inexperienced employees in order to secure their
agreement to remove issues whose inclusion would be protective of human health.”

As a result of the manipulations, people who work with these chemicals are not receiving information they need to protect themselves, such as “proper handling procedures, personal protection needed, accidental release measures, and first aid and firefighting measures,” according to PEER.
This is a particular concern for pregnant women, according to the PEER complaint.

Erasing important information

On August 26, 2021, PEER filed a separate complaint alleging that the EPA has been breaking the law by erasing original versions of internal communications and draft documents and retaining only the final version of key documents. The practice violates the Federal Records Act by eliminating details of the decision-making process from outside review, according to PEER.

PEER states that that discarding of documents trails is not only contrary to law but also violates the EPA’s own records retention policy. According to PEER, its complaint focuses on two classes of documents:

  • Alterations of chemical risk assessments by managers in which both the identity of the manager and the alterations themselves are not apparent; and
  • Internal comments related to the development of its Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, in which EPA software overwrote the original and all prior versions any time there was an edit. Thus, only the “final” version was saved.

“It is as if EPA memorializes its internal decision-making in disappearing ink,” PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, said in a press release. “EPA’s record-keeping practices allow unknown officials to make changes while disguising what precisely was changed and who changed them.”

PEER said it has asked the National Archives and Records Administration to intervene to prevent the EPA from destroying more records and to adopt safeguards to prevent any recurrences.

The case of Ruth Etzel

Ruth Etzel,  former director of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP), filed a  whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board contending she was subject to illegal retaliation in 2018 and 2019. Etzel said the agency retaliated against her after she complained publicly about what she said was  EPA resistance to stronger public protections against lead poisoning.

At the EPA it was Etzel’s job to determine the impacts of regulations on children. But she alleges she was improperly removed from her position after speaking out about EPA failures, and was assigned to a division where she was not allowed to work on prevention of lead poisoning.

Etzel is both a pediatrician and an epidemiologist and is recognized internationally as an expert on child health and the environment. She was named the 2021 winner of the Public Policy and Advocacy Award by the Academic Pediatric Association.

More than 120 environmental and health organizations  complained to EPA about Etzel’s removal, saying the agency was sending a “signal that children’s health is not a priority for the agency.”

Reporting on EPA’s misconduct

See here information, including news articles, regarding alleged EPA misconduct and regulatory failures:

New evidence of corruption at EPA chemicals division, by Sharon Lerner, The Intercept, September 18, 2021

EPA whistleblower testifies her advocacy for stronger health protections drew agency retaliation, by Carey Gillam, USRTK, September 13, 2021

‘The harm to children is irreparable’: Ruth Etzel speaks out ahead of EPA whistleblower hearing, Carey Gillam, The Guardian, September 12, 2021

The EPA’s rationale for banning chlorpyrifos may make it harder to eliminate other brain-harming pesticides , Sharon Lerner, The Intercept, August 24, 2021.

Formaldehyde causes leukemia, according to EPA assessment suppressed by Trump officials, Sharon Lerner, The Intercept, August 19, 2021.

EPA exposed: Leaked audio shows pressure to overrule scientists in “hair-on-hire” cases,  Sharon Lerner, The Intercept, August 4, 2021.

Whistleblowers expose corruption in EPA chemical safety office, Sharon Lerner, The Intercept, July 2, 2021.

How pesticide companies corrupted the EPA and poisoned America, Sharon Lerner, The Intercept, June 30, 2021.

Flawed analysis of an intentional human dosing study and its impact on chlorpyrifos risk assessment,  Lianne Sheppard, Seth McGrew, Richard Fenske, Environment International, July 2020.

Further Efforts Needed to Uphold Scientific Integrity Policy at EPA,  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General, May 20, 2020.

EPA Allowed Companies to Make 40 New PFAS Chemicals Despite Serious Risks, Sharon Lerner, The Intercept, September, 19, 2019.

E.P.A. Won’t Ban Chlorpyrifos, Pesticide Tied to Children’s Health Problems, Lisa Friedman, New York Times, July 18, 2019.

Emails show Trump EPA overruled career staff on Wisconsin air pollution, Timothy Gardner, Reuters, May 28, 2019.

US environment agency cuts funding for kids’ health studies, Sara Reardon, Nature, May 13, 2019.

Meet 3 women who stood up to Trump to protect the American people — and lost their jobs,  The Hill, January 19, 2019.

White House, EPA headed off chemical pollution study, Annie Snider, Politico, May 14, 2018.

Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, Carey Gillam, Island Press, October 10, 2017.

Records Show EPA Efforts to Slow Herbicide Review Came in Coordination with Monsanto, Carey Gillam, Huffington Post, August 18, 2017.

EPA Official Accused of Helping Monsanto “Kill” Cancer Study, Joel Rosenblatt, Lydia Mulvany, and Peter Waldman, Bloomberg, March 14, 2017.

Poison Spring- The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA, Evaggelos Vallianatos and McKay Jenkins, Bloomsbury Press, April 14, 2014.

EPA’s “scientific integrity” program lacks teeth, group alleges

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Insiders at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have alleged dozens of violations of the agency’s “scientific integrity” policy over the last few years, including complaints of political interference and tampering with chemical risk assessments, but nearly all the complaints have been ignored, according to an analysis conducted by a nonprofit group representing EPA employees.

Seven complaints were filed very recently- between January and July of this year, according to EPA data obtained by the group.

Since 2017 there have been a total of 68 allegations of scientific integrity violations inside the EPA, including 35 allegations filed between 2019 and mid-year 2021, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

PEER is currently representing four EPA scientists who have come forward as whistleblowers, offering internal agency emails and other documents as evidence of what they allege is wide-spread corruption driven by powerful political and corporate influences.

Among other things, those whistleblowers have claimed specifically that chemical risk assessments have been altered, or otherwise tampered with, in order to make chemicals entering the marketplace appear safer than they actually are. The result leaves the public exposed to chemicals that may cause cancer, developmental problems or other hidden health risks.

Importantly, the whistleblowers have said that agency misconduct has continued through the first several months of the Biden administration.

The information obtained by PEER shows that of the 35 allegations filed from 2019 through June 2021, 12 were closed, 22 remained unresolved and only one was deemed “substantiated,” but even that one has not led to any punishment.

“It’s a complete sham,” Jeff Ruch, one of PEER’s regional directors and former executive director, said of the EPA’s scientific integrity program. “They give the illusion that they have a program, but it’s worse than nothing because it suggests they’re holding themselves to a high standard of scientific integrity when they’re not.”

Interference

The EPA has publicly reported scientific integrity complaint information through 2018, but has not filed public reports for complaint information since. The data for 2019 through June of 2021 was procured by PEER through a Freedom of Information Act request. The nonprofit requested details about the complaints and their handling but EPA provided only very limited information illustrated in pie charts.

The information in the pie charts shows that “interference” in scientific work ranked as the most often-cited type of complaint. Five of the seven complaints recorded for the first half of 2021 were for interference, for instance.

Shortly after taking office, President Biden launched a review of federal scientific integrity policies, saying “Scientific findings should never be distorted or influenced by political considerations.”

The directive said ”Improper political interference in the work of Federal scientists… undermines the welfare of the Nation, contributes to systemic inequities and injustices, and violates the trust that the public places in government to best serve its collective interests.”

In one example of such interference, PEER filed a complaint last year with the EPA’s Office of  Inspector General charging that then EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, along with other high-ranking EPA officials, excluded key scientific information and the analysis of experts​ in changing the definition of “water of the United States” under the Clean Water Act, a move PEER and others said threatened clean drinking water around the country. 

“Major” hindrances

PEER describes what it calls “major” hindrances within the EPA’s Scientific Integrity program, including a “lack of investigative staff,” an “inability to draw upon expertise needed to assess technical issues,” and the “absence of any protocol for reviewing or investigating complaints.”

And notably, violations of the agency’s scientific integrity policy carry no penalties, PEER said.  The group’s experience representing whistleblowers indicates violations are largely addressed by trying to “persuade non-compliant managers to address their own violations,” PEER said.

The group said with respect to the current whistleblower complaints PEER is involved in, the EPA scientists notified the agency’s office of scientific integrity last November about their concerns about a memorandum that made policy changes they scientists said weakened human health assessments in a way that made them less likely to find risks with a new chemical substance. Their concerns were ignored for months, according to PEER. The memorandum was eventually revoked, but the altered chemical assessments were not corrected and the scientists fear the policy memo will be reinstituted, according to PEER.

In the EPA’s 2018 report, the agency said that “Scientific integrity remains an ongoing priority for EPA,” and said the agency works with special advisors and committees and engages the Office of Inspector General (OIG) when needed to protect and advance the integrity of the agency’s scientific work.

“Scientific integrity is the compass that guides EPA in its mission to protect human health
and the environment,” the agency states in the report.