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Daily News Blog

06
Aug

Whistleblowers Say EPA Managers Engaged in Corrupt and Unethical Practices, Removed Findings and Revised Conclusions

(Beyond Pesticides, August 6, 2021) The organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has filed complaints with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on behalf of four EPA whistleblower scientists. The scientists maintain that during the Trump administration, risk assessments for both new and existing chemicals were improperly changed by agency managers to eliminate or reduce calculations of risks; further, they assert that some of this behavior at EPA is ongoing. Beyond Pesticides recently covered a report in The Intercept, written by Sharon Lerner, that examined the multiple aspects of undue industry influence on the regulation of pesticide chemicals. The PEER complaints address regulation of other kinds of toxic chemicals, but Beyond Pesticides maintains that some of the problems the whistleblowers identify hold true for EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, as well.

Appropriately enough, the nation again recognized National Whistleblower Appreciation Day on July 30. In 1989, Congress established the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) to protect federal employees who report lawbreaking or other violations of rules or regulations; waste of funds; abuses of authority; gross mismanagement; or substantial and specific danger to public health or safety. In 2012, Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) to expand and strengthen such protections. Despite these protections, these four have been subjected to reprisals for their multiple expressions of concern about dysfunction at EPA, and in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in particular.

Ms. Lerner’s coverage of the whistleblowers’ charges, in The Intercept’s July 2 piece, “Whistleblowers Expose Corruption in EPA Chemical Safety Office,” reports that the four “said that they told colleagues and supervisors within the agency about the interference with their work. Each of the scientists also filed complaints with either the EPA’s Inspector General or the Office of Science Integrity, which has pledged to investigate corruption within the agency. But because most of their concerns remained unaddressed months after they disclosed them — and because, in each case, the altering of the record presented a potential risk to human health — the scientists said they felt compelled to make their complaints public.”

EPA is tasked broadly with protection of human and environmental health; this mission flows to its subordinate divisions, as well. In 1976, Congress created the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to protect the public from “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment” by regulating the manufacture and commercial sale of chemicals. Several categories of chemicals were exempted from regulation through the law, such as those in tobacco products, pesticides (regulated by the 1947 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA), food, and cosmetics.

Because TSCA had proven relatively ineffective at protecting the public from chemicals in myriad consumer products, an update to it, the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, was adopted in 2016. It sought to strengthen protections by mandating safety reviews, including for chemicals new to the market; increase transparency about information on subject chemicals; enhance EPA authority to require testing; reduce companies’ ability to claim chemical information as propriety or confidential and thus, withhold it from regulators; and explicitly protect vulnerable parts of the population, such as pregnant people and children, among other features.

The law gave rise to a new division within EPA: the New Chemicals Division (NCD), which operates within the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT). OPPT functions under the aegis of EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP), as does the OPP (Office of Pesticide Programs), which is responsible for evaluating and registering all pesticides. (See the organizational chart here.)

The four whistleblowers worked under OCSPP (and NCD), which are supposed to evaluate risk assessment studies to gauge a new (or existing) chemical’s potential risk to humans. Such assessments can lead the agency to place limits on a chemical’s use or to ban it entirely. The four have reported that civil service managers at EPA, during the term of the Trump administration and continuing to today, have engaged in corrupt and unethical practices, such as regularly accessing risk assessments completed by staff scientists in order to, variously:

  • remove language that identifies potential adverse effects, including developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, mutagenicity, and/or carcinogenicity
  • revise conclusions in risk assessment reports significantly to indicate no toxicity concerns despite data to the contrary
  • reassign risk assessment work to less-experienced employees so as to remove content whose inclusion would protect human health and/or to secure sign-offs on faulty or inadequate assessments

Such activities are not only unethical and corrupt; it is downright dangerous to distort or withhold information about the kinds and degrees of risk of chemicals that may enter the materials stream and environment. In its website reporting on the matter, PEER writes, “In every case where this type of interference has occurred, the revised assessment was no longer as protective of worker safety and the environment. Moreover, the resulting Material Safety Data Sheets lack information vital to prevent harmful exposures, such as proper handling procedures, personal protection needed, accidental release measures, first aid, and firefighting measures.”

According to Richard Denison, PhD, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and presenter in a webinar offered by PEER on July 28 (recorded and available soon via the PEER website and its YouTube channel), the NCD is a “black box” that courts excessive confidentiality claims from industry, withholds information from the public, and has an “insular, secretive culture” that works against the mission of EPA and the interests of the people. He asserted that often, the “only parties in room when decisions are made are EPA and chemical industry people,” adding how striking it is that decisions on chemicals cited in the whistleblowers’ complaints all fell in favor of industry.

PEER Director of Science Policy Kyla Bennett, PhD, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, adds, “These alterations of risk assessments are not just artifacts of the Trump administration; they are continuing on a weekly basis. All of these altered assessments need to be pulled back and corrected in order to protect both workers handling chemicals and the American public.” In the webinar, she mentioned that since these first four whistleblowers came forward, more are emerging. These four were very upset and having trouble sleeping; one “did not want to be the reason for the next PFOA to be out on the market, killing people.”

The updated TSCA requires that a company proposing to manufacture or import a new chemical provide to EPA a premanufacture notice at least 90 days before manufacture or importation commences. Both Dr. Denison and Dr. Bennett noted that evaluating a new chemical within that time frame is a nearly impossible task, not least because NCD scientists are often asked to evaluate new chemicals with insufficient, or sometimes entirely missing, data. Dr. Bennett explained: according to the whistleblowers, staff are sometimes given very little information to work with — sometimes as little as the name of a chemical and a summary paragraph from an industry study. Thus, staff members are sometimes forced to do what are called “desk audits” — assessments based on industry-produced studies to determine safety. In these cases, the scientists often end up looking at structurally similar chemicals to arrive at some conclusion about safety.

The whistleblowers report extreme pressure to sign off on inadequate evaluations, and say that staff are rewarded for doing so. When, as these four did, agency scientists have refused to do that, the assessments have been taken away from them and given to less-experienced employees who would. In addition, staff who have “blown the whistle” by reporting incidences of what the WPA specifically spells out — “violations of rules or regulations; abuses of authority; gross mismanagement; or substantial and specific danger to public health or safety” — have suffered reprisals, including functional reassignment or demotion.

National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” program spoke with two of the whistleblowers and with Sharon Lerner, author of The Intercept articles of June 30, “The Department of Yes,” and the July 2 Whistleblowers Expose Corruption in EP Chemical Safety Office. Science Friday reported whistleblower allegations in its coverage, EPA Whistleblowers Allege “Atmosphere of Fear.” As the whistleblowers wrote in a submission to both The Intercept and the office of Representative Ro Khanna of California, “The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is broken. . . . The entire New Chemicals program operates under an atmosphere of fear — scientists are afraid of retaliation for trying to implement TSCA the way Congress intended, and they fear that their actions (or inactions) at the direction of management are resulting in harm to human health and the environment.”

The net, as reported by Ms. Lerner, is that “EPA managers [have] removed information about the risks posed by dozens of chemicals.” She wrote, “On several occasions, information about hazards was deleted from agency assessments without informing or seeking the consent of the scientists who authored them. Some of these cases led the EPA to withhold critical information from the public about potentially dangerous chemical exposures. In other cases, the removal of the hazard information or the altering of the scientists’ conclusions in reports paved the way for the use of chemicals, which otherwise would not have been allowed on the market.”

During the July 28 webinar, Dr. Bennett commented that some career staff at EPA — and in particular, in NCD, have been “captured by industry.” She asserts that this is true not only of political appointees, but also, of career managerial staff, and not only during the Trump administration. She said it is a bipartisan problem that has occurred in the Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations.

PEER reports that over the past few months, EPA scientists in the NCD have raised objections to the kinds of actions alleged in the complaints, even filing complaints under EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy — the only significant results of which have been harassment of the scientists by the managers named in the complaints. PEER’s filing with the EPA OIG requests that the office “identify all the alterations and restore the correct risk information.”

PEER adds that “many of the altered risk assessment documents have been overwritten and intermediate comments have been erased in violation of EPA’s Records Management Policy.” PEER is calling for the removal, by the Inspector General, of any civil service managers found responsible for these infractions and violations. In PEER’s website coverage, Dr. Bennett wrote, “EPA’s lack of accountability for scientific misconduct poses a direct danger to public health. Inside EPA, scientific integrity has become an oxymoron and a cure will require a complete overhaul.”

EPA issued a statement in response to The Intercept’s query on the PEER complaint: “EPA takes seriously all allegations of violations of scientific integrity. EPA’s scientific integrity official and scientific integrity team members will thoroughly investigate any allegation of violation of EPA’s scientific integrity policy that they receive and work to safeguard EPA science. Additionally, EPA is currently reviewing agency policies, processes, and practices to ensure that the best available science and data inform Agency decisions. EPA is committed to fostering a culture of evaluation and continuous learning that promotes an open exchange of differing scientific and policy positions. Additionally, retaliation against EPA employees for reporting violations alleged to have occurred will not be tolerated in this administration. EPA leadership are reviewing these complaints, and any appropriate action will be taken.”

Yet, Ms. Lerner reports that although complaints to the OIG are typically kept confidential, somehow, “many mangers in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention had somehow obtained a copy of the whistleblowers’ allegations. ‘The fact that EPA released our clients’ names is inappropriate and troubling,’ said [Dr.] Bennett. ‘They’ve been put in an incredibly uncomfortable situation. This gives the managers the chance to circle the wagons trying to go after them.’”

Executive Director of PEER Tim Whitehouse, JD, maintained (in the July 28 webinar) that politics has overtaken professionalism among managers at EPA, and that managerial interference in the evaluations of potentially toxic chemicals is having real-world impacts on communities, livelihoods, and the health of populations. The risks may be especially acute for workers, in industry and agriculture, who cannot know the real risks of chemicals with which they may be working because of this corrupt activity at EPA.

He further noted that, although more than 20 federal agencies have scientific integrity policies, they are not working because staff in some agencies still cannot raise issues without fear of retaliation. Mr. Whitehouse adds that the Biden administration is reviewing these policies to improve them, but that unless there are enforcement measures that hold managers accountable, even this will not help. It will, he maintains, take new EPA Administrator Michael Regan, new Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Michal Ilana Freedhoff, and Congress to remedy the culture at NCD and to rebuild both the science staff at EPA (which was severely eroded during the Trump administration), and the agency’s morale and culture, which were also badly damaged. He noted that as one of his first acts, Administrator Regan issued a memorandum outlining concrete steps to reinforce EPA’s commitment to science.

Mr. White calls the whistleblowers “brave patriots,” and says it is the job of the advocacy community and the public to push the Biden administration to address this issue of problematic chemicals that are already in the materials stream and environment because “people are being harmed right now.” PEER maintains that, in response to the whistleblowers’ complaints, the OIG should do a comprehensive assessment of what chemicals have been approved to date and are “out there” so that they can be legitimately assessed and pulled from the market if necessary.

Beyond Pesticides has written on other EPA dysfunction, including lack of enforcement of regulation, the “revolving door” between government and industry, the assault on science, and industry influence on scientific integrity. Stay tuned to the Beyond Pesticides Daily News Blog for more on the story of the whistleblowers and what they have revealed, including coverage of other articles expected from The Intercept in coming weeks.

Sources: https://www.peer.org/epa-risk-assessments-doctored-to-mask-hazards/ and https://theintercept.com/2021/07/02/epa-chemical-safety-corruption-whistleblowers/

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

 

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