Trump officials feared PR 'nightmare' from drinking water standards

Officials at the White House and Environment Protection Agency (EPA) fretted about a public relations "nightmare" from an agency’s expected move to change suggested standards for fluorinated chemicals in drinking water, according to internal emails.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control, is currently readjusting its standards for acceptable levels of the chemical in drinking water and is expected to propose that safe levels be almost six times stricter than EPA's current recommendation. 

Internal Trump administration emails, that the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, paint a picture of an administration bracing for the heightened standards, fearing the conflicting guidance's impact on other parts of the federal government.

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In one of the emails obtained and first reported by Politico on Monday, an unnamed White House intergovernmental affairs official called the expected fallout from the stronger recommendations "extremely painful."

“The public, media and Congressional reaction to these new numbers is going to be huge,” the official wrote in a letter forwarded to the EPA. “The impact to EPA and DoD [the Department of Defense] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

Fluorinated chemicals are used by a number of industries, including in products such as hoses to reduce emissions for cars and planes, sterile equipment used in pharmaceuticals, and stain resistance in clothing and nonstick cookware. But the chemicals are also associated with serious health risks, including kidney and testicular cancer.

Another series of emails between agency officials show that the EPA and the Pentagon sought to get interagency review of the rule before publishing, but as one EPA staffer wrote, "It seems like [the ATSDR] want to roll out [the report] and do they [sic] own thing.” 

The exchange reported that ATSDR Director Patrick Breysse provided the proposed levels to EPA officials but would not give the other agencies a full draft of the proposal or say when the standards would be formally published in the Federal Register.

One conversation between EPA officials discussed the wide differences between the level sought by ATSDR and those cited by the EPA in its own study. Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, remarked that while ATSDR said its drinking water intake level doesn't not differ significantly from EPA's health advisory, "I think it's important to note that we disagree with the perspective that there is not a significant difference between our drinking water values."

The ATSDR is responsible for defining minimal risk levels in drinking water, estimated as the daily safe exposure to a hazardous substance that is most likely to be without risks over time.

In their exchanges, agency officials feared how the public and the media would react to the stricter standards, which EPA staffers said was based on a different study than the EPA based its findings.

At least one environmental group viewed the exchange as EPA's attempt to circumvent the tougher drinking water standards.

“Unlike Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump moves to relax Obama-era water protections Trump will seek to weaken Obama-era wetlands protections: report The Year Ahead: Dems under pressure to deliver on green agenda MORE’s Pollution Protection Agency, there is still one government agency clearly trying to safeguard the public from these dangerous chemicals,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement Monday. “Only Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration would consider reducing drinking water contamination for the American people to be a ‘nightmare.’ ”

While the ATSDR's recommendations are nonbinding and don't force the EPA to change its standards, they are considered important screening levels.