Energy & Environment

White House intervened to weaken EPA guidance on ‘forever chemicals’

Documents reviewed by The Hill show the White House intervened as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was weighing a strict ban on imports of products that contain a cancer-linked compound, substantially weakening the guidance.

The guidance in question sought to limit potential exposure to a group of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS, used as a nonstick coating on products ranging from raincoats to carpets to cookware. They’ve been dubbed “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment and the human body.

But as the EPA worked to limit the importation of any product with PFAS inside or out, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) stepped in and significantly watered down the guidance in December, barring importation of only those products with a PFAS coating on the outside.

“It appears that OMB aggressively edited the guidance document to make it less protective of human health and the environment and to minimize the scope of a rule that’s intended to protect people from a very toxic class of chemicals,” said Eve Gartner, managing attorney of the toxic exposure and health program at Earthjustice. “It’s troubling that OMB is using its review authority to undermine the protectiveness of a rule that’s designed to protect consumers.”

Though widely used, PFAS has been linked with cancer and other ailments and has spurred a push by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to limit use of some variations of the chemical.

With the White House’s changes, companies can still import products that have components covered with PFAS on the inside without alerting the EPA.

Environmental health advocates say that’s not good enough. 

“Products disintegrate over time, so if you have something with PFAS on the inside then you may be exposed over time. As it dissolves it gets into household dust, eventually it gets thrown away in a landfill and can leach PFAS and get into the environment that way,” said Melanie Benesch, a legislative attorney with the Environmental Working Group, which tracks PFAS contamination in the U.S. 

It’s not clear why the White House stepped in to weaken the guidance. 

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within OMB typically reviews major regulations before they are finalized, but does not typically review guidance documents. An executive order from President Trump, however, allows the process. 

“This is an illustration of the harms of allowing OIRA to review the guidance because it allowed OIRA to inject political considerations that override the science and what career agency staff at EPA thinks is the best policy,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory advocate with Public Citizen.

That’s not the first time that’s happened under the Trump administration when it comes to PFAS.

The December guidance weakened by OMB was a follow up to a PFAS rule finalized by the agency in June laying out requirements for any “significant new use” of the chemical, a term that kicks off more oversight from EPA.

But in August, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) asked for an investigation of that rulemaking process, alleging Nancy Beck, then the EPA’s principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, was involved in significantly weakening it.

Beck is a former senior director of the American Chemistry Council, which represents companies that produce various forms of PFAS. 

Beck worked at the EPA for part of the time it was developing its PFAS rule, but left in mid-2019 and has been on detail to OMB since, though the White House did not confirm her specific title.

Carper accused Beck of working to weaken the rule, “urging for the adoption of a complicated and time-consuming analytic barrier” when weighing whether a product with PFAS posed a reasonable potential for exposure. 

“Documents and other information obtained by my office indicate that in Dr. Beck’s previous role as EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, as well as in her current role at the White House National Economic Council, Dr. Beck has sought to make it more difficult for EPA to use its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to protect Americans from these harmful substances. I urge you to resist these efforts and ensure the final rule is as protective as was originally envisioned,” Carper wrote in April.

The EPA at the time denied any involvement from Beck.

“These accusations against Nancy Beck are baseless. Dr. Beck was not involved in pushing for any provisions in the final rule,” EPA spokesman James Hewitt said in April. 

The rule was finalized in June, disappointing environmentalists who hoped the EPA would take a more aggressive approach in regulating PFAS.

The December guidance that was weakened by OMB shows a commitment to a more narrow interpretation of how the rule should be applied.

Reached for comment, Beck referred The Hill to the EPA.

Neither EPA nor OMB responded to a request asking about the rationale behind the changes, but OMB did say Beck was not involved in crafting the December guidance.

EPA branded the changes as a routine result of interagency review.

“Consulting with other federal agencies on actions is a normal process across government. When issuing a rule or guidance, EPA often engages in an interagency review process led by OMB. This collaboration is important as other agencies have information and expertise that may be useful to EPA,” an agency spokesperson said by email. “It is routine for the agency to receive input from our federal partners. EPA then reviews those comments and may revise decisions based on that feedback.”

Gartner said regardless of who spearheaded the changes, they went beyond the involvement OMB should have in rulemaking.

“The role of OMB in reviewing rules and guidance documents should be limited to ensuring consistency across agencies and ensuring clarity of the rule or guidance documents,” she said.

Tags Donald Trump PFAWS Tom Carper

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