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Daily News Blog

31
Mar

Office of the Inspector General Slams EPA for Betraying Scientific Integrity. . . Again

(Beyond Pesticides, March 31, 2023) A report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies the most recent event in the very long chronicle of EPA dysfunction that — put charitably — constitutes failures to enact its mission, and more accurately, sometimes crosses the line into malfeasance. In the report, OIG concludes that EPA’s 2021 PFBS Toxicity Assessment failed to “uphold the agency’s commitments to scientific integrity and information quality,” and that the agency’s actions “left the public vulnerable to potential negative impacts on human health.” As reported by The Guardian, “Trump administration appointees at . . . EPA meddled in agency science to weaken the toxicity assessment of a dangerous chemical.” Last year, Beyond Pesticide concerns about the myriad risks and harms of pesticides intersected with those about the PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) family of chemical compounds, of which PFBS is a member, when a study found very high levels of PFAS in multiple pesticide products.

The EPA OIG explains why it undertook the evaluation that led to this report: “to determine whether the EPA followed applicable policies and procedures to develop and publish the January 19, 2021 perfluorobutane sulfonic acid toxicity assessment. Two weeks after publication, the EPA removed the toxicity assessment from its website, citing political interference and Scientific Integrity Policy violations. . . . The EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, established in 2012, states that science is the backbone of the EPA’s decision making and that the Agency depends on the integrity of its science to protect human health and the environment. All EPA employees — including scientists, managers, and political appointees — must follow the Scientific Integrity Policy.”

PFBS (perfluorobutane sulfonate) is one of thousands of PFAS “forever chemicals” that are emerging as a ubiquitous and serious threat to human and organismic health. These compounds do not break down in the environment, and can move through soils, contaminate water resources, and bioaccumulate in aquatic and terrestrial organisms. The Guardian writes that PFBS “is toxic at low levels. Research has linked the chemical to kidney disease, reproductive problems and thyroid damage, and it has been found throughout the environment, including in an estimated 860,000 Americans’ drinking water.”

Concurrent with the recent Biden administration EPA announcement of new proposed federal standards for PFAS compounds in drinking water, the Environmental Working Group published an interactive map of the nearly 3,000 (and rising) number of sites in the U.S. (and two territories) contaminated by PFAS chemicals. EPA warned, in June 2022, that PFAS compounds, linked to reproductive, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine (especially thyroid) anomalies and to several kinds of cancer, are an even greater health threat than was previously known. Many advocates have noted that the proposed new federal standards are still inadequate because they are less stringent than the interim advisory levels for safe consumption EPA set out last year — lifetime exposures of no more than 0.004 to 0.02 ppt (parts per trillion), depending on the type of PFAS compound.

The OIG report notes “unprecedented” interference on the part of Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and other political appointees in the PFBS assessment. At the 11th hour, Mr. Wheeler ordered the insertion of a range of toxicity values, rather than a specific limit. The compromised assessment, which would have guided drinking water standards for the chemical, as well as targets that polluters would need to meet in pollution cleanup — thus, allowing companies to remediate PFBS to higher, more-dangerous levels — was published just four days prior to the inauguration of President Biden. The OIG report notes that “The new numbers were inserted without being fully scientifically vetted, and they lacked ‘technical and quality assurance review.’” Kyla Bennett of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) notes that “[t]hey were trying so hard to get [the assessment] out before Trump left office.”

The Biden administration yanked the 2021 PFBS assessment in February 2021 because of its determination that there had been political interference. According to The Guardian, it was republished several months later “using what it said is sound science, and declared it had resolved the issue.” But some EPA scientists related to the newspaper that “several employees willingly worked with the Trump appointees to weaken the assessment, and they were never reprimanded or fired. The scientists say the controversy is part of a deeper problem afflicting EPA: industry influence on career staff, and an unwillingness from the EPA to address it.

‘The issue is part of the larger rot at the agency of career staff working with industry to weaken the EPA,’ a current agency scientist familiar with the situation said. The scientist did not use their name for fear of reprisal.”

After the 2021 assessment was pulled, the Biden administration declared in a statement that the EPA evaluation of PFBS had been “compromised by political interference as well as infringement of authorship.” The Guardian reports that, “During its review, the administration took no action against career employees who implemented the political appointees’ changes. Those employees ‘made the changes happily,’ according to PEER’s Kyla Bennett, of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), but remained at the agency.”

According to The Guardian’s coverage, internal emails from the ebbing days of the Trump EPA, as well as comments in the OIG report, indicate that career employees in the agency’s OCSPP (Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention) either asked for the toxicity metric changes or did not object to them. Reportedly, the sole career employee who opposed the order for changes to the PFBS assessment was Orme-Zavaleta, who told The Guardian that Administrator Wheeler’s order “flew in the face of scientific integrity.” Former EPA scientist Betsy Southerland told the paper that the changes were “something that industry has always wanted.”

Beyond Pesticides has repeatedly highlighted the too-cozy relationship between the chemical industries and EPA, with particular attention to the impacts on EPA’s registration and regulation of pesticides. A 2021 press release on a letter sent to the Biden Administration by Beyond Pesticides and PEER (with 35 other groups) summarized the issues: “The Office of Pesticides Programs within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has become so captured by industry that it has lost sight of its health and environmental mission. . . . [T]he groups are urging the Biden administration to adopt reforms within OPP to ensure pesticide approval and use decisions are science-based.”

It continues, “Inside OPP [EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs], marginalization of science remains cause for celebration and the result has been repeated ecological and public health disasters. . . . The letter recounts a litany of improper pesticide approval decisions, some of which were blocked in court, while still others are being reversed under Biden. But the groups say these cases are symptomatic of a larger institutional illness that calls for thoroughgoing reforms. The cumulative effects of years and decades of this regulatory abuse are untold human deaths, disabilities, and illnesses. Industry has been forced to pay out billions of dollars for damages claims over OPP-approved products. The groups also point to the decline of pollinators — the key to American food security — due to the indiscriminate application of highly potent pesticides. The health of non-target wildlife, as well as our soil and waters, is under chemical siege.” 

Beyond Pesticides has covered many of the transgressions of EPA during the Trump administration, including those related to pesticides (e.g., dicamba, chlorpyrifos), scientific integrity, lack of transparency and accountability, poor enforcement of regulations, and water protection, among others. Investigative journalists Cary Gillam, Sharon Lerner, and PEER have all bird dogged EPA on its chemical and pesticide policies and regulations; Beyond Pesticides has featured their work (and others’) in various Daily News Blog entries. See, for example, coverage on EPA’s ongoing failures and malfeasance: EPA reliance on industry research; the “revolving door” between industry and EPA; chemical industry influence on the agency; the corrupt alteration of scientific information, as related to the pesticide dicamba; and so many instances of EPA disregarding scientifically demonstrable harms that they cannot reasonably be listed here.

Beyond Pesticides’ three-part series, based in part on Ms. Lerner’s work, goes directly to these issues: undermining of EPA function by industry influence, the susceptibility of EPA officials and managers to corrupt behavior, and the ongoing failure of the agency to align its efforts with its own 2012 Scientific Integrity Policy, here and here. Further, the many transgressions of the Trump EPA are a dramatic demonstration of how whip-sawed EPA’s operations and approach can be with the advent of administrations whose politics harbor animus toward regulation — even though the agency’s job is to protect human and environmental health.

As is the practice for the offices of federal Inspectors General in reports on their internal agency investigations, the EPA OIG made recommendations to the agency. Three of those are directed to the assistant administrator for Research and Development; they (1) “aim to reduce procedural confusion and strengthen existing policies, procedures, and guidance by clarifying if and when comments expressing scientific disagreement can be expressed; (2) making clear if and when toxicity ranges are acceptable; and (3) using the OIG as a resource for high-profile scientific integrity concerns that relate to political interference or that assert risk to human health or the environment.” Another is directed to the assistant administrator for Mission Support: “to update policies and procedures on environmental information quality to require additional quality assurance reviews for EPA products.” The last goes to the deputy administrator of EPA: “to strengthen the EPA’s culture of scientific integrity, transparency, and accountability of political leadership actions when changes occur as a result of policy decisions.”

Whether and how EPA chooses to adopt these recommendations remains to be seen. Yet even this OIG report — though potentially helpful in righting EPA’s ship — does not address the comprehensive overhaul needed at EPA to ensure it pursues its mission with integrity, based in science, and with protection of health and environment at the helm.

As Beyond Pesticides recently wrote, “[EPA’s] track record, on so many pesticides [and chemicals broadly], is to deal with one compound (under a narrow range of circumstances and/or narrow time frame and/or specific exposure levels) at a time. Beyond Pesticides has dubbed this the ‘whack-a-mole’ struggle on pesticides. Each regulatory baby step at EPA, each judicial settlement or knock-down of a particular pesticide, each bit of research demonstrating harms — these represent small, incremental advances on a pesticide [and broad “chemical saturation”] problem that is vast in scope. But this approach is wholly inadequate to the devastation that [dangerous chemicals] are causing, and it continues the “collision course” we are on re: human health and well-being, biodiversity collapse, and the climate crisis. A precautionary approach . . . is far more suited to the task of genuinely protecting public health and the environment.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/23/trump-appointees-epa-toxic-chemical-pfas-pfbs-toxic?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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

 

 

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