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Daily News Blog

20
Oct

EPA to Create Advisory Councils to Restore Scientific Integrity in Pesticide/Chemicals Division

(Beyond Pesticides, October 20, 2021) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last week plans to establish a new position and two advisory councils in order to enhance scientific integrity within the agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP). The move is being widely seen as a response to recent reporting over how EPA has allowed the chemical industry to distort and unduly influence its process for reviewing and approving toxic pesticides and other chemicals. “Scientific integrity is the backbone of the work we do to ensure the safety of chemicals used in our everyday lives,” said Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Michal Freedhoff, PhD. “Strong, sound science underpins confidence in our decision-making among the public that we serve. Today’s announcements are the latest in a series of steps OCSPP is taking to reaffirm our commitment to scientific integrity and restore the public trust.”

EPA will create a new internal advisory group called the OSCPP Science Policy Council “to provide advisory support and recommendations on science policy and scientific integrity issues that arise within its Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics and Office of Pesticide Programs.” The chair of this advisory group will be a new position, a science policy advisor, who will report to the EPA Assistant Administrator. In addition to providing “guidance on emerging science policy and scientific integrity matters,” the new science policy advisor will also be named the deputy scientific integrity official for OSCPP.

EPA imagines the OCSPP Science Policy Council as providing an “advisory perspective” on scientific integrity, looking at issues at are of “broad interest within OCSPP for informal review” while also fostering informal opportunities for scientific collaboration.

Advocates see the move as a step in the right direction but note that problems within OCSPP run deep. “While these processes and procedures can improve the situation within the offices, they cannot change the culture within the agency,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to The Intercept. “The core problem at EPA that needs to be addressed is that mid-level managers who violate scientific integrity rules and policies need to be held accountable. And that does not appear to be happening.” 

Previous reporting by The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner detailed a range of troubling issues running through OSCPP’s Office of Pesticide Programs. Whistleblowers describe an agency captured by the industry it is charged with regulating. Staffers ignore or bury scientific data relating to public health dangers, and create “yes packages” at the behest of powerful elected officials to push a pesticide to market without required scientific review. The controversy raises concerns about complicit behavior in institutions, often directed from the top (political appointees), that mandate mid- and lower-level employees to engage in processes and behaviors that undermine science and the health protective mission.

While the Biden administration has ‘talked the talk’ since the start, EPA actions have not matched its lofty language. Assistant Administrator Freedhoff’s said earlier this year, in an open letter to EPA employees, “Over the past few years, I am aware that political interference sometimes compromised the integrity of our science.” And continuing, “This is a new day, about communication, trust, transparency and the importance of science in our regulatory decision-making process.” Yet, four months after that statement, the agency carried on with an appalling Trump-era decision to re-approve the Parkinson-causing herbicide paraquat. In fact, the agency did not just reapprove paraquat, it allowed aerial spray uses the Trump administration planned to eliminate.

In making its decision EPA said that, “No direct one-to-one alternatives to paraquat are available;” a statement that is factually untrue and reeks of industry influence, according to advocates. Further reporting shows that EPA relied on data provided by an industry group called the Agricultural Handler Exposure Task Force, which includes in its ranks, Bayer Monsanto, BASF, Corteva, FMC, and Syngenta/ChemChina, the primary producer of paraquat.

These moves leave advocates to question how EPA thinks an agency with scientific integrity operates. While advisory boards can help shape that response, how the agency arrives at its decisions must be rebuilt from the ground up.

In addition to the science policy advisors, OSCPP also plans an advisory group for reviews of new chemicals, another area where whistleblower reporting has uncovered industry rot. EPA indicates that a New Chemicals Advisory Committee will review science and policy related issues regarding new chemical submissions under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which regulates industrial chemicals (of which some overlap with pesticides). EPA’s press release describes the body as “an opportunity for additional independent subject matter experts to participate in the discussion on scientific work products and cross cutting science policies.”

Within OSCPP New Chemicals Division, reporting also conducted by The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner uncovered a range of unethical and corrupt practices. Staff scientists were directed to remove language from risk assessments relating to important health endpoints, revise conclusions to make chemicals look safer than they were, and shift work to less-experienced employees in order to approve inadequate scientific reviews.  

The last action EPA plans to take as part of its integrity drive is to work with an independent contractors on a “workplace climate assessment” that will “capture feedback from employees and management about any potential workplace barriers and opportunities for organizational improvement.” Accordingly, EPA leaders indicate that will employ the feedback reviewed in order to “if necessary, make changes in OCSPP’s work practices and culture.” Watchdog groups note that the only way work practice and culture changes would not be necessary is if this announcement was simply a way to provide cover for the agency to continue to conduct business as usual.

Pesticides and other chemicals are linked to a growing list of diseases that are far too common in today’s day and age. It is critical for so many Americans’ health that OSCPP embrace real reforms, root out industry influence, and stop the revolving door between employees at EPA and the chemical industry. EPA notes that it may include EPA experts outside of OSCPP within its advisory boards. Although EPA has a long road ahead to restore public trust in its actions, truly independent advisors, internal shifts in culture, and final decisions that embrace the full variety of less and non-toxic alternative to pesticides and other toxic substances can help the agency make considerable progress in the eyes of the public.

For more information on the way the pesticide and chemical industry have hollowed out the agency charged with protecting our health and environment, see previous reporting from The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner, as well as Beyond Pesticides coverage (1, 2, 3). Send a letter today urging EPA to take actions that hold the chemical industry accountable for the poisoning and damage they cause.

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

Source: EPA press release, The Intercept

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