Energy & Environment

EPA alleges political interference by Trump officials over toxic chemical

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday asserted that political appointees from the Trump administration interfered with a safety assessment for a chemical linked to health issues.

The agency said in a statement that it was removing from its website a toxicity assessment for a compound known as PFBS due to the alleged interference.

Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, a career agency scientist, told The Hill in an interview that the interference resulted in a range of values being given for PFBS’s toxicity, as opposed to just one value that was in an initial assessment from career scientists.

“We had a document that was, in our eyes final, it had gone through a pretty rigorous process of review,” said Orme-Zavaleta, who serves as acting assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development. “All of that information had been incorporated into a document that we had been ready to go final with and then the document was modified.”

“What was posted provided different values that could be used by other parties rather than a clear conclusion, a clear assessment from the scientists’ perspective,” she added. 

The EPA official raised concerns that a range of numbers would allow those who use the toxicity assessments, like those participating in hazardous waste cleanup, to “cherry pick” whichever number they wanted to use.

“Historically the agency has not put out a range. We put out a reference value that can then be applied in decisions,” Orme-Zavaleta said. “In the case of Superfund, this would help inform a cleanup level and if you give them a range of numbers, then whoever has to do that cleanup, they could pick a number that best suited their purposes.”

Politico first reported on alleged interference involving PFBS, which is part of a class of toxic chemicals called PFAS and has been estimated to be in the drinking water of 862,000 people. 

David Dunlap, a Trump administration official who had been serving as deputy assistant administrator in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, disagreed that the incident was a scientific integrity issue, arguing instead that the use of multiple values was a “compromise” amid disagreements. 

“There’s scientists in ORD who want to do it one way and there’s scientists in [the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention who] believe that it should be done better another and this disagreement was evident months ago,” Dunlap said.

He added that in light of the disagreement, having a range of values would allow third parties such as states and cities that might use the agency’s data to “make their own determination about what is the proper number to use for their particular, unique set of circumstances.”

Dunlap cited a December memo that was labeled as “senior toxicologist review” from the chemical safety office of the PFBS findings. The memo did not list a specific author or authors. 

It contained a disagreement with the ORD finding that there was a certain data gap.

Orme-Zavaleta argued in a follow-up statement that the scientific integrity policy was still violated because “none of the authors of the assessment or other career employees from ORD were present at any discussion he references.”

“Further, any change to the document at this stage should have triggered a new review cycle of other scientists within EPA, with other Federal Agencies, the public and an external peer review process,” she added. 

Members of a Senate panel voted Tuesday to advance President Biden’s pick of Michael Regan to lead the EPA.

The Biden administration’s top appointees are not currently at the agency, as they are still going through the confirmation process, but other political officials have joined the agency’s leadership team in recent weeks.

Tags Environmental Protection Agency EPA Joe Biden Michael Regan

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