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EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement

EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement
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When the chemical company Brenntag received a fine in 2017, the National Association of Chemical Distributors asked for help from two new Trump administration appointees who previously worked in chemical lobbying, according to emails obtained by The Hill through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The two appointees were Mandy Gunasekara, a former NACD lobbyist who is now chief of staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Nancy Beck, former senior director at the American Chemistry Council. Beck, now detailed at the White House, has been nominated by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Brenntag was ultimately fined, although the penalty it received was roughly 20 percent lower than the one initially proposed by the EPA. 

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Documents state that the EPA had originally proposed a $19,410 penalty.

It was eventually settled for $15,591 according to an EPA spokesperson.

While former EPA officials told The Hill they didn’t think the changed settlement figure was out of the ordinary, the correspondence between an industry executive and former industry officials who landed jobs in the administration underscores what critics say is a cozy relationship between business groups and Trump officials.

In one 2017 exchange, NACD Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Jennifer Gibson asked Beck and Gunasekara to “assist” with a settlement that followed an alleged failure by Brenntag to certify a certain chemical on an official report.

Brenntag said in a letter that appeared to be attached to an NACD email that the penalty stemmed from its failure to certify the chemical formic acid on an EPA report. The company stated that when it was made aware of this, it “took the corrective action of ‘clicking’ the certification button” on the report.

In the emails obtained by The Hill, Beck told Gibson in response to the NACD’s concerns that she would “pass this along” to the agency’s enforcement office. In a separate email to Gibson, Beck said “our enforcement team is looking into the additional concerns you sent as well.”

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Gibson added that she and NACD President Eric Byer were working to collect “troubling enforcement examples” from its members “as a follow up” to a meeting with then-EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA's scientific integrity in question over science rule Major unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight MORE.

Gibson said the group was “curious to know if [the EPA’s Southeast region] even vetted this penalty through EPA headquarters as this seems completely contrary to the approach Administrator Scott Pruitt indicated he would like the agency to take.”

The Brenntag facility in question is located in Georgia, though the company is headquartered in Germany and has operations worldwide.

At the time, Beck was working in the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and Gunasekara worked as a policy adviser for the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation.

Asked about the email exchange, the EPA said that during a roundtable with Pruitt, the NACD had complained of lag time between agency inspections and notification of violations, which created uncertainty. Following this, Pruitt asked his staff to look into why this was occurring, according to the agency.

In the emails obtained by The Hill, the NACD does not appear to complain about lag time in the Brenntag case; however, the NACD did bring up timing issues in other cases it highlighted to EPA officials.

Just a few months into his tenure at the time of the exchange, Pruitt had previously lamented what he described as the Obama EPA’s “overreach” and famously sued the EPA 14 times before taking the helm at the agency.

Close ties with lobbyists was a defining feature of Pruitt’s controversial tenure. He had rented a condo owned by Vicki Hart, whose husband, J. Steven Hart, was chairman of lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, and had trips planned by industry representatives.

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for the left-leaning government accountability group Public Citizen, told The Hill that Republican administrations have been close with industry, but that the closeness is even more pronounced under the Trump administration.

“The GOP is closely connected to big business,” Gilbert said. “That’s always been the case...That said, I think the Trump administration has taken it to new heights.”

The EPA did not provide a comment to The Hill when contacted about criticisms about close ties to industries.

Meanwhile, EPA data has shown that under Trump, the agency has undertaken fewer inspections and evaluations than during the Obama administration in any given year.

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The largest number of annual inspections and evaluations under Trump was the nearly 12,000 in 2017; the fewest conducted by the Obama administration was nearly 14,000 in 2016.

A spokesperson for the NACD declined to answer The Hill’s questions about its meeting with Pruitt, but instead provided a statement which said that it advocates “for approaches that reduce unnecessary burdens, ensure the benefits of regulations are worth the costs, and simplify the process for the regulated community.”

“We always welcome opportunities to provide examples of ways in which regulations and enforcement actions are not meeting those thresholds,” the spokesman said. “We will continue to encourage and support efforts to craft pro-business policies that foster growth so our members can keep providing good paying, locally-focused jobs while remaining committed to operating in a safe and responsible manner, regardless of the presidential administration.”

Scott Gordon, a former career EPA enforcement official who had been working in the agency’s Southeast region during the time of the Brenntag case, told The Hill that headquarters didn’t attempt to change the decision made by agency officials regarding the matter. 

“Because I know the underlying facts and I know how the matter was resolved, I think it’s a non-event,” he said. “You might have had those exchanges in other parts of the country where people decided to completely stand down, but that was not the position that we had in [the Southeast region].”  

He characterized Beck’s responses in the emails as “pass the buck responses” saying it was OK for the matter to be directed to career enforcement staffers.

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But Lori Ann Burd, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Environmental Health Program Director, told The Hill after reviewing the emails that she found them troubling regardless of the outcome of the individual case.

“It would certainly have a chilling effect for regional regulators to know that...there’s a potential for Washington office intervention at the highest levels on their day-to-day routine enforcement actions,” Burd said. “We see that effect play out in the numbers and how far down enforcement actions are at EPA right now.”

Bob Sussman, who served as senior policy counsel to the EPA administrator during the Obama administration, told The Hill that the emails don’t show wrongdoing, but that in a different administration, the request would have been handled differently.

“It is unusual that she would hold herself out as someone who would take on the issue and follow up,” Sussman said of Beck’s response to the NACD. “She could have just closed the door.”

He added that he believes the emails indicate that “when Pruitt was at the agency, there was sort of an open door to industry to use political channels within the agency to take on enforcement actions that the industry didn’t like.”