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Daily News Blog

28
May

Inspector General Blasts Trump’s Politicized EPA, No Announced Plans to Reverse Unscientific Decisions

(Beyond Pesticides, May 28, 2021) A report by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concludes that scientific analyses by the agency were altered so as to favor top Trump administration officials’ policy choices in the 2018 reapproval of the highly toxic and problematic pesticide, dicamba. The report, “EPA Deviated from its Typical Procedures in Its 2018 Dicamba Pesticide Registration Decision,” was publicly released on May 24. It confirms aspects of what Beyond Pesticides and many others in the science, advocacy, public health, and environmental communities have been saying and reporting since 2016: the Trump administration executed a wholesale assault on scientific integrity in federal decision making.

In its research on the matter, the Inspector General’s office (OIG) reviewed EPA’s 2016 and 2018 decisions on dicamba’s registration, documentation that purported to support those decisions, and the concerns forwarded in the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and by many stakeholders. (See more in figure below.) It also reviewed EPA internal procedures and guidance on pesticide registration, and agency scientific integrity materials; interviewed career scientists and other agency staff; and communicated with EPA’s Scientific Integrity (Science Advisor) program staff.

As reported by The Hill, interviews and emails with multiple agency scientists and staff members reveal a host of concerning behaviors. One is that after a senior management review of the 2018 re-approval of dicamba (for use on genetically engineered cotton and soybeans), the assistant administrator’s office instructed scientists to use an outline it provided to them for rewriting an impact analysis document, including removal of several sections of the original document. One scientist asserted that senior management in OCSPP (EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention) told them to use industry-provided data — rather than EPA’s own data — for reported damage from dicamba. Yet another was a staff scientist’s claim that senior management and policymakers instructed that plant height (rather than the academic standard of “visual signs of plant injury”) should be used to measure dicamba’s effects. The OIG report concluded that such behaviors ultimately changed the scientific conclusions about dicamba’s use.

The OIG report concluded: “We found that the EPA’s 2018 dicamba pesticide conditional registration decision varied from the OPP’s [Office of Pesticide Program’s] written standard operating procedures, namely because EPA did not conduct the required internal peer review of scientific documents created to support the dicamba decision. . . . Senior leaders in OCSPP’s immediate office — specifically the former deputy assistant administrator, former deputy assistant administrator for Law and Policy, and former acting principal deputy assistant administrator (hereafter referred to as “senior management”) — were more involved in the dicamba decision than in other pesticide registration decisions. This led to senior-level changes to or omissions from scientific documents, including omissions of some conclusions addressing stakeholder risks” [emphasis by Beyond Pesticides]. The individuals in those specific EPA positions cited in the report included, respectively: Nancy Beck (former deputy assistant administrator, who previously served as a senior director at the American Chemistry Council—the trade organization for the chemical industry), Erik Baptist (former deputy assistant administrator for Law and Policy), and Charlotte Bertrand (former acting principal deputy assistant administrator).

The report continues: “In separate interviews, scientists from the OPP’s Registration Division, EFED [Environmental Fate and Effects Division], and BEAD [Biological and Economic Analysis Division] all described feeling constrained or muted in sharing their scientific integrity concerns with senior management during the dicamba registration process. The EPA’s actions on the dicamba registration left the decision legally vulnerable, resulting in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacating the three 2018 registrations for violating FIFRA by substantially understating some risks and failing to acknowledge others entirely.” (FIFRA is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the governing framework for registration and labeling of pesticides.)

Dicamba has been the subject of extreme controversy in recent years, with rampant reports of “peripheral” damage due to its strong tendency to drift and cause damage to nontarget plants. Midwestern states have been especially affected. Use of dicamba is also associated with harmful environmental/ecosystem and health impacts: it is toxic to birds, fish, and other aquatic organisms; it leaches into groundwater; and it plays a role in carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity, hepatic and renal damage, and developmental effects, among other anomalies.

The Trump EPA’s actions on dicamba were part of a larger context and mission. The OIG report confirms what Beyond Pesticides and other advocates have maintained for years: the Trump administration’s EPA acted repeatedly in ways that ignored, contravened, or outright distorted science in service of political aims, and worked to hobble the agency’s ability to protect the environment and the public. This happened with dicamba, as the OIG report notes, but was not confined to that compound’s fate. A very small sampling follows.

That Trump administration’s launch — featuring the appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator and a hiring freeze at the agency — was just the start. Out of the gates and in cahoots with the agrochemical industry, EPA reversed the agency’s own decision to ban use of the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos on food, and sought to delay release of information showing that three organophosphate pesticides are highly toxic to endangered species. Mr. Pruitt vowed to slash EPA staff in half by 2020, and banned scientists funded by EPA from serving on its Science Advisory Board, making EPA more beholden to industry “science” and its priorities of “profit through pollution.” EPA sought, in 2017, to harness the flow of scientific information coming out of the agency by banning its distribution via social media, and instituting on staff scientists an “unspecified vetting process before sharing their work outside the agency” — a move that violated EPA’s own scientific integrity policy. The administration attacked scientists who identified problems with EPA’s regulation of pesticides. Trump’s EPA weakened protections of U.S. waterways and wetlands. At the eleventh hour, Trump’s EPA finalized its misnamed “transparency rule,” which in fact significantly restricted the scientific research EPA could use in developing regulations to protect human health.

To put arms around the breadth of the environmental damage the Trump administration had caused (with continued effect) during its tenure, The New York Times published — on President Biden’s Inauguration Day — its chronicle, “The Trump Administration Rolled Back More Than 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List.” A number of items on the list note harmful pesticide-related actions.

EPA’s history with dicamba is convoluted; the OIG report provides a simple and useful timeline:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the Ninth Circuit Court ordered the dicamba OTT (over the top, meaning for post-emergent use) registrations to be vacated, a mere four months later those dicamba uses were reregistered yet again by the Trump EPA, this time for five years. In a press release, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) wrote, “Just days before the November presidential election, the Trump EPA rushed to reapprove dicamba products for five years, and farmers and conservation groups were forced again to sue to challenge the approval. This is the third time the agency has registered these products, each time with additional restrictions that have failed to stem devastating drift.”

Stephanie Parent, an attorney for CBD and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit against EPA for that decision, commented on the OIG report in an email to Progressive Farmer and DTN, “[A]fter the Office of the Inspector General’s damning report on the EPA’s highly politicized, anti-science approach to fast-tracking the use of this harmful pesticide, the agency should cancel its recent approval, not try to defend it in court. The EPA knows that anything less is likely to result in yet another summer of damaged fields and lost profits for farmers choosing not to use dicamba.”

Progressive Farmer further reports that EPA is standing by the 2020 reregistration decision. In an emailed statement, an EPA spokesperson said, “The agency has responded to the Office of the Inspector General’s report and is implementing several actions to ensure that our pesticide registration decisions are free from political interference and that the agency’s scientific integrity policy is upheld. The agency looks forward to productive conversations with the Office of the Inspector General as we work to resolve this matter. EPA stands by its 2020 decision made with the input of career scientists and managers.”

From the report: “The EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy notes that the Agency’s ability to pursue its mission to protect human health and the environment depends upon the integrity of the science on which the EPA relies. Per the policy, the EPA’s scientists and managers are expected to represent Agency scientific activities clearly, accurately, honestly, objectively, thoroughly, without political or other interference, and in a timely manner, consistent with their official responsibilities. Additionally, scientists and managers are expected to follow federal and EPA transparency requirements, including documenting the formulation and execution of policies and decisions. For pesticide registration decisions, the OPP must review registrations and document its decisions.”

What this EPA OIG report portends for dicamba with the new Biden administration is unclear. Michal Freedhoff, principal deputy assistant administrator​ for OCSPP in the Biden administration, confirmed that the agency agrees with OIG’s conclusion that EPA mishandled the 2018 dicamba decision. He agreed that EPA should follow existing protocols and processes, and that senior managers must justify and document any changes they make, including the reasons for them. He commented in an internal response to the report, “This incident occurred despite the best efforts of OCSPP’s career scientists and managers to recommend a different approach that was scientifically, procedurally and legally sound.”

This is confusing at best. One the one hand, EPA is saying that the agency “mishandled the 2018 dicamba decision.” On the other, it appears to be standing by its 2020 anti-science decision to reregister the pesticide for OTT uses. Advocates say that what EPA ought to do is ban the use of this toxic pesticide entirely. Short of that, they say it should at the very least abide by the 2020 order of the Ninth Circuit Court to vacate the registrations of the OTT uses, given that their registrations violated FIFRA, thus reversing the Trump EPA’s 2020 ruling. Beyond that, advocates maintain that EPA should undertake a wholesale review of dicamba, using legitimate data sources and the analyses of career experts both within and without the agency to set new rules that would protect farmers’ crops, farmworkers, ecosystems, and human health.

In November 2020, Beyond Pesticides wrote about the need for an EPA (and agency administrator) that understands: “the relationship between a healthy environment and a healthy economy; disproportionate risk and environmental racism; the importance of standing up to polluting industries; the existential threats facing the country and the globe; the failure of risk assessment and unrealistic risk mitigation measures that poison people and the environment, and destroy life; and the need for meaningful results, rather than politically expedient compromises.” Implementing these understandings into EPA’s work, according to Beyond Pesticides, would remedy a great many wrongs done during the past four years and longer.

If it acts seriously on its campaign slogan that science must underpin federal policy and decision making, the Biden administration faces a legion of harmful decisions that must be undone. We must all insist that President Biden’s EPA restore the role of legitimate science in federal policy and rulemaking, and jettison agency rulings that arose out of the political and corrupt motivations of the last administration. Beyond Pesticides asks the public to contact elected U.S. Senators and Representatives, and President Biden, to insist on a precautionary and protective EPA.

Sources: https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/555174-trump-epa-changed-scientific-analyses-pesticide-re-approval-watchdog?rl=1 and https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2021-05/documents/_epaoig20210524-21-e-0146.pdf

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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