Guest column: EPA has lost its way

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 risks 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.