TRUMP RULES: Why Is the E.P.A. Soft on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Gets Her Way

TRUMP RULES: Why Is the E.P.A. Soft on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Gets Her Way

- in World Biz
5
0

The changes directed by Dr. Beck may result in an “underestimation of the potential risks to human health and the environment” caused by PFOA and other so-called legacy chemicals no longer sold on the market, the Office of Water’s top official warned in a confidential internal memo obtained by The New York Times.

Dr. Beck testifying at a Senate hearing in March. She joined the E.P.A. in May after working as an executive at the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association.

Credit
U.S. Senate Committee Channel

The E.P.A.’s abrupt new direction on legacy chemicals is part of a broad initiative by the Trump administration to change the way the federal government evaluates health and environmental risks associated with hazardous chemicals, making it more aligned with the industry’s wishes.

It is a cause with far-reaching consequences for consumers and chemical companies, as the E.P.A. regulates some 80,000 different chemicals, many of them highly toxic and used in workplaces, homes and everyday products. If chemicals are deemed less risky, they are less likely to be subjected to heavy oversight and restrictions.

The effort is not new, nor is the decades-long debate over how best to identify and assess risks, but the industry has not benefited from such highly placed champions in government since the Reagan administration. The cause was taken up by Dr. Beck and others in the administration of President George W. Bush, with some success, and met with resistance during the Obama administration. Now it has been aggressively revived under President Trump by an array of industry-backed political appointees and others.

Dr. Beck, who has a doctorate in environmental health, comes from a camp — firmly backed by the chemical industry — that says the government too often directs burdensome rules at what she has called “phantom risks.”

Other scientists and administrators at the E.P.A., including Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, until last month the agency’s top official overseeing pesticides and toxic chemicals, say the dangers are real and the pushback is often a tactic for deflecting accountability — and shoring up industry profits at the expense of public safety.

Document

E.P.A.’s Decision Not to Ban Chlorpyrifos

The New York Times requested copies of email correspondence related to the March 2017 decision by the E.P.A. to reject a decade-old petition to ban chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide that research suggests may cause developmental delays in children exposed to it in drinking water or in farming communities. Here are those documents.



OPEN Document


Since Mr. Trump’s election, Dr. Beck’s approach has been unabashedly ascendant, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former E.P.A. and White House officials, confidential E.P.A. documents, and materials obtained through open-record requests.

In March, Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. chief, overrode the recommendation of Ms. Hamnett and agency scientists to ban the commercial use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, blamed for developmental disabilities in children.

The E.P.A.’s new leadership also pressed agency scientists to re-evaluate a plan to ban certain uses of two dangerous chemicals that have caused dozens of deaths or severe health problems: methylene chloride, which is found in paint strippers, and trichloroethylene, which removes grease from metals and is used in dry cleaning.

“It was extremely disturbing to me,” Ms. Hamnett said of the order she received to reverse the proposed pesticide ban. “The industry met with E.P.A. political appointees. And then I was asked to change the agency’s stand.”

The E.P.A. and Dr. Beck declined repeated requests to comment that included detailed lists of questions.

“No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A., said in an email. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

Before joining the E.P.A., Ms. Bowman was a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council.

The conflict over how to define risk in federal regulations comes just as the E.P.A. was supposed to be fixing its backlogged and beleaguered chemical regulation program. Last year, after a decade of delays, Congress passed bipartisan legislation that would push the E.P.A. to determine whether dozens of chemicals were so dangerous that they should be banned or restricted.

The chemical safety law was passed after Congress and the chemical industry reached a consensus that toxic chemical threats — or at least the fear of them — were so severe that they undermined consumer confidence in products on the market.

But now the chemical industry and many of the companies that use their compounds are praising the Trump administration’s changed direction, saying new chemicals are getting faster regulatory reviews and existing chemicals will benefit from a less dogmatic approach to determining risk.

“U.S. businesses, jobs and competitiveness depend on a functioning new chemicals program,” Calvin M. Dooley, a former congressman who is president of the American Chemistry Council, said in a statement. It was issued in June after Dr. Beck, his recent employee, pushed through many industry-friendly changes in her new role at the E.P.A., including the change in tracking legacy chemicals such as PFOA.

Anne Womack Kolton, a vice president at the council, said on Wednesday that Dr. Beck’s appointment was a positive development.

“We, along with many others, are glad that individuals who support credible science and thorough analysis as the basis for policymaking have agreed to serve,” she said in an email. “Consistency, transparency and high quality science in the regulatory process are in everyone’s interests.”

The Trump administration’s shift, the industry has acknowledged, could have financial benefits. Otherwise, the industry may lose “millions of dollars and years of research invested in a chemical,” the American Chemistry Council and other groups wrote in a legal brief defending the changes Dr. Beck had engineered.

But consumer advocates and many longtime scientists, managers and administrators at the E.P.A. are alarmed by the administration’s priorities and worry that the new law’s anticipated crackdown on hazardous chemicals could be compromised.