Trump officials changed scientific analyses in pesticide reapproval: EPA watchdog

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists told the agency’s internal watchdog that scientific analyses were changed in favor of top officials’ policy choices in the 2018 reapproval of a pesticide, according to a new report.

The inspector general's office said in the report published Monday that scientists in the Office of Pesticide Programs gave examples of such actions in interviews in the reapproval of the pesticide dicamba.

Multiple scientists said and emails showed that after a senior management review, the assistant administrator’s office gave scientists an outline for rewriting an impact analysis document that removed several sections of the original, the watchdog said.

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One scientist alleged that senior management in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention told them to use company data for reported dicamba damages instead of EPA data.

Another scientist told the inspector general that senior management and policymakers decided that plant height should be used to measure dicamba’s effects instead of visual signs of plant injury, a standard used in academic and company studies. The report said that this direction changed the scientific conclusions.

In an email to The Hill, Erik Baptist, who served as the deputy assistant administrator in the EPA's chemicals office at the time of the dicamba decision, said that top officials were involved because of the importance of the issue.

"Senior career and appointed leaders pay particular attention to every decision that may have a significant national impact. The 2018 dicamba decision was no different," he said. "For senior leaders not to be 'more involved in the dicamba decision than in other pesticide registration decisions' would have been a dereliction of responsibility."

Baptist also said without providing specifics that the report had "numerous inaccuracies," and noted that it did not accuse officials of violating the agency's scientific integrity policy.

The 2018 reapproval was for controlling weeds on cotton and soybeans that had been genetically engineered to tolerate it. Some opponents of the EPA's decision had argued that other crops that aren't resistant to dicamba could be impacted by its usage.

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Uses of dicamba were reapproved again in 2020 for five years. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology last year linked dicamba use to certain cancers.

In response to the watchdog report, Biden administration official Michal Freedhoff, principal deputy assistant administrator​ for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP), agreed with the watchdog that the agency should follow its existing processes and procedures and that senior managers must document reasons for their changes. 

“This incident occurred despite the best efforts of OCSPP's career scientists and managers to recommend a different approach that was scientifically, procedurally and legally sound,” Freedhoff wrote in the response, dated last month.

--Updated on May 25 at 9:39 a.m.