Top 5 takeaways from this weekend’s NY Times investigation into industry influence in EPA’s toxics program

Richard Denison, Ph.D.is a Lead Senior Scientist.

The lead article in Sunday’s print edition of the New York Times, titled “Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots,” presents an 8000-word exposé of the Trump Administration’s takeover of the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety program.  It focuses on the outsized role played by Dr. Nancy Beck, who arrived at the Agency on May 1 fresh from her job as a senior official at the chemical industry’s main trade association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

For those who have not had the chance to read the article, I provide here my take on some of its most compelling and disturbing findings:

  1. Immediately upon her arrival at EPA as a political appointee, Dr. Beck made extensive changes to the near-final “framework rules” implementing the Toxic Substances Control Act.
  2. Dr. Beck’s changes were objected to by career staff in multiple offices across the Agency.
  3. Dr. Beck is actively working to jettison proposed rules that would ban high-risk uses of trichloroethylene and methylene chloride.
  4. Dr. Beck has been cleared to work on issues directly relating to her prior employer’s interests.
  5. While at ACC, Dr. Beck frequently worked with Michael Dourson, the industry toxicologist-for-hire that President Trump nominated to head the EPA chemical safety office and who is facing stiff opposition from many Senators.

For a bit more detail on each of these, keep reading.  

1. Immediately upon her arrival at EPA as a political appointee, Dr. Beck made extensive changes to the near-final chemical safety “framework rules” implementing the Toxic Substances Control Act. These rules specify how core provisions of the reformed TSCA are to be implemented for many years to come.  The changes Beck made closely mirror those called for by ACC, some of which Beck herself had authored while with the industry’s lobbying arm.  (Full disclosure:  EDF and other groups have filed lawsuits challenging these rules as contrary to the law.)

2.  Dr. Beck’s changes were objected to by career staff in multiple offices across the Agency. The offices objected, among other things to  the exclusion from risk evaluations of so-called “legacy uses,” where a chemical is no longer manufactured for a specific use in the U.S. but has continued use and disposal; the inclusion of precise definitions of certain terms like “best available science;” allowance for EPA only to examine a subset of uses of a chemical in its risk evaluation; and a lack of opportunity for public comment on the extensive changes made relative to the proposed rules.

Notably, the Times reported that staff were told by EPA’s political leadership that they could not file “nonconcurrences,” which would have triggered further review of the changes being made.

3.  Dr. Beck is actively working to jettison proposed rules that would ban high-risk uses of trichloroethylene and methylene chloride. These rules, proposed in December and January, represented the first effort by EPA to use its TSCA authority to restrict use of a chemical in 28 years.  EPA’s work on these rules began prior to TSCA reform and was specifically grandfathered in under the reforms, but the chemical industry’s opposition to the rules is holding sway.  ACC members make and use both of these chemicals, and Beck herself co-authored ACC’s comments on EPA’s risk assessments of these chemicals.

While paint strippers containing methylene chloride are responsible for dozens of deaths in recent years, the Times reported that Beck specifically questioned whether the number of deaths was sufficient to warrant a ban.

4.  Dr. Beck has been cleared to work on issues directly relating to her prior employer’s interests. Beck was appointed using a relatively rare authority usually reserved for technical experts who are not in decision-making positions.  As such she was exempted from the Trump ethics pledge.  Indeed, her ethics agreement is jaw-dropping, and gives her wide latitude to work on issues in which ACC has financial interests in order to ensure those interests are taken into account.

Also of note is the date of Beck’s ethics agreement:  June 8, 2017.  Final drafts of the two TSCA framework rules she had worked feverishly to change went over to the White House for final sign-off on May 23 and June 1.  In other words, it appears that her work on these rules occurred prior to even this limited ethics agreement being in place.

5.  While at ACC, Dr. Beck frequently worked with Michael Dourson, the industry toxicologist-for-hire that President Trump nominated to head the EPA chemical safety office and who is facing stiff opposition from many Senators. The Times article notes that the two co-authored a paper funded by ACC; that is one of at least two such papers.  Last week it was reported that Dourson is already working at EPA as a special advisor to Administrator Pruitt even though his nomination has yet to be confirmed.

 

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