By Tim Whitehouse
It has been more than 20 years since I worked as a senior attorney at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), using my legal training to help enforce the Clean Water Act and advise agency managers on a range of hazardous waste issues.
When I joined the regulatory agency in 1992, I felt my work would matter; that I would play a small role in protecting public and environmental health. And during the ten years I worked there, I always felt I was making a positive difference and my managers were usually able to apply the law in ways that balanced the interests of various stakeholders.
Over the years, however, it has become more apparent that this is often no longer the case, and that powerful corporate interests have taken too much control over EPA’s decision-making processes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in EPA’s chemicals and pesticides programs.
The last 30 years have brought countless examples of EPA’s appalling incompetence and willful corruption as the agency routinely capitulates to the interests of the chemical industry and ignores or minimizes human health and environmental risks.
Newly unearthed documents regarding one such chemical – the weed killer paraquat – provide just the latest example of how inept the agency has become in protecting public health.
At the organization I work for now – Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility – we are currently representing EPA scientists who have bravely put their careers on the line to speak out publicly about the wrongdoing they’ve witnessed with the agency.
Through a series of disclosures to EPA’s Inspector General and Congress, these scientists have provided extensive evidence of a system that operates in a black box where threats to human health from chemicals are routinely deleted from risk assessments, where agency managers routinely bow to industry wishes, where key managers move back and forth between jobs at the EPA and the chemical industry with scant scrutiny, and where managers ignore risk indicators and intimidate staff into signing off on assessments with insufficient data to reach a conclusion.
The EPA’s new chemicals and pesticides programs are supposed to manage the potential risks to human health and the environment from chemicals entering the marketplace. However, we have clear evidence that the system is rigged to support the interests of the chemical industry and to pressure scientists to quickly and efficiently serve these interests. Those who don’t serve these interests are harassed and driven from their jobs.
While some positive changes have come to the chemicals and pesticides offices in the past two years, fundamental problems remain. A recent example of this is the decision by the EPA to plow ahead with a dangerous and unwarranted decision that will put agricultural workers, pesticide applicators and the public at increased risk of cancer and other ailments from a widely used fumigant called Telone.
Evidence shows, and the EPA’s Inspector General confirmed, that the EPA pesticides program mishandled the human health risk assessment of that pesticide, improperly downgrading the cancer risk associated with 1,3-dichloropropene (1,3-D), a popular Dow Chemical soil fumigant and nematicide that is often found under the brand name Telone. If the EPA’s proposed cancer downgrade is finalized, it will mean higher amounts of the chemical can be sprayed into the air without being considered a risk to human health.
The Inspector General noted how the pesticides office failed to conduct a competent literature search, violated its own peer review and transparency procedures, met with the Telone manufacturer multiple times without entering those meetings into the official pesticide-registration review docket, and overrode key internal controls and insisted on using a novel assessment technique the National Academy of Sciences found was ‘too vague and is of little scientific use.’
Unfortunately, it appears these are standard operating procedures for EPA.
We know the EPA Inspector General is taking these whistleblower complaints seriously and we expect they will issue a series of reports and findings on our clients’ disclosures in the near future. This should provide a real opportunity to make changes in how the agency operates and hopefully will pressure Congress to provide greater oversight and legislative reforms to these programs.
(Opinion columns published in The New Lede represent the views of the individual(s) authoring the columns and not necessarily the perspectives of TNL editors.)