Quantcast
Connect with us

Long before Trump pick Pruitt, the EPA had a history of collusion with industry

Published

on

- Commentary

When Scott Pruitt took the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017, public health activists, environmentalists and ordinary citizens expressed outrage. How could a politician with close ties to the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) be counted on to champion the Agency’s mandate? Why turn the EPA over to a lawyer who was involved in multiple lawsuits against it, and, who, as attorney general of Oklahoma, disbanded that state’s Environmental Protection Unit? Less than two years later, Pruitt’s record as EPA head has only reinforced his detractors’ worst fears.

While Scott Pruitt’s tenure provokes almost daily controversy, what remains less known is that the EPA has long been a compromised institution. In fact, decades before Pruitt arrived with his transparently anti-legislation agenda, the EPA colluded with industry in ways that endangered public health and undermined its own mission.

ADVERTISEMENT

This article originally appeared in Salon.

I know this because in late 2017 my organization, the Bioscience Resource Project, collaborated with the Center for Media and Democracy to rescue and digitize the Poison Papers. These documents come mainly from the barn of longtime pesticide campaigner Carol Van Strum, whose homesteading family and their neighbors were repeatedly sprayed in the 1970s by what turned out to be Agent Orange.

Aimed at Oregon forest weeds, these aerial sprayings instead killed her animals and sickened her children. So, Van Strum and her husband embarked on a decades-long investigation to uncover who knew what about Agent Orange, and when they knew it. Their inquiry eventually broadened beyond Agent Orange and they ultimately amassed two and a half tons of eye-opening internal documents from the Agency and other sources. Collectively, the Poison Papers constitute an alarming portrait. Virtually from its inception in 1970, the EPA has proactively overridden scientific evidence and sacrificed public safety for the benefit of the chemical industry.

Permethrin: A case study in collusion

ADVERTISEMENT

Permethrin, often marketed as Nix, is a staple among insecticides. Approved by the EPA in 1982, it is widely applied in agriculture and by homeowners. It is added to many consumer products, from carpets to clothing. Permethrin is also sold as an insect repellent for personal use. Given this ubiquity, no one would suspect that permethrin was approved for sale despite an internal EPA calculation that at legally allowable levels it would cause cancer in as much as 10 percent of the human population (p. 96 of the linked document).

In a memo (p. 45) from the Poison Papers dated May 7, 1982, one of the EPA’s most senior scientists, Adrian Gross, wrote bluntly to John Melone, acting director of EPA’s Hazards Evaluation Division, that: “the evidence is overwhelming that permethrin has a marked tumor-inducing or carcinogenic activity which is expressed in many different forms.”

Gross drew his conclusion from the seven long-term rat and mouse carcinogenicity studies on permethrin that were available to the EPA at the time. Five of the seven were audited by the Agency and all showed clear evidence of scientific misconduct that disguised evidence of harm:

ADVERTISEMENT

  • In one study, conducted by UK chemical company ICI, 160 mice were to be culled during the experiment and histologically examined. For reasons that no one at ICI or EPA could explain, 19 mice were missing (p. 18 of the linked document). As a highly trained toxicologist, Adrian Gross appreciated that such a breach of the study protocol invalidated any conclusion of safety.
  • Another study, conducted by Burroughs-Wellcome (also a manufacturer of permethrin), was equally plagued by mysterious omissions (p. 30). In this case 10 livers, 14 lungs and 131 pituitary glands that were supposed to be examined for pathology were missing. Once again, no explanation for the absence was forthcoming.
  • Gross also observed extraordinarily lax reporting of animal pathologies. He noted (p. 27) that: “… no professional pathologist was in attendance at the time the experimental animals were dissected after death in order to record grossly observable pathologic alterations in their carcasses and tissues.” Gross then noted how an EPA pathologist found more tumors than reported by one applicant, even with just a cursory examination of their tissue sections.

These and other serious lapses in the studies — which included fraudulent reporting — prompted Gross to write (p. 37): “I cannot see how anyone in complete control of his senses could place any kind of reliability in any study conducted according to such practices” and later, (p. 45) “none of these seven studies can be regarded as having established that permethrin is ‘safe’ from a carcinogenic point of view.”

Just as disturbing, Gross showed EPA’s own evaluators systematically minimized or ignored evidence whenever studies showed that permethrin — despite the irregularities — elevated cancers and other health dangers.

In August of the following year, Gross followed up with the Director of EPA’s Registration Division, Douglas Campt. It was in this memo that he made the ominous claim about permethrin’s cancer risk. Gross concluded that the proposed Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) level of 0.05mg/Kg body weight per day of permethrin would result, depending on the extrapolation method, in an upper limit of cancer rates among the human population of between 1 and 10 percent from permethrin alone. “I should think that risks of cancer of this order… are unacceptable to any rational person,” he wrote (p. 96).

ADVERTISEMENT

Over Gross’s well-documented objections, EPA officials deemed permethrin safe. It was introduced to the market based on a final summary assessment written by Orville Paynter, the chief of EPA’s Toxicology Branch, and co-author Edwin Budd. This summary found no grounds for concern, concluding that “the risk of human oncogenic effects resulting from exposure to low levels of Permethrin is non existent or extremely low” (p. 120).

Scrutinizing away danger

Gross, who died in 1992, was nothing if not dogged. In a separate memorandum to Jay Ellenberger of EPA’s Registration Division, dated June 18, 1981, concerning the pesticide oxamyl, Gross detailed the specifics of how the EPA’s internal review procedures contrived to systematically discard clear evidence pointing to toxicological hazards. Results damaging to a product were intensively and laboriously scrutinized by EPA reviewers until they were whittled down to findings more conducive to the chemical companies’ aims or disappeared altogether. This whittling took the form of successive rounds of internal evaluation, sometimes even necessitating special ad-hoc committees. In contrast, findings of lack of harm, even amid apparent testing fraud, received no such scrutiny (p. 73).

ADVERTISEMENT

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts.” Accordingly, our months spent combing through the Poison Papers force the conclusion that many EPA officials — and not just those who dealt with permethrin and oxamyl — believe that all scientific evidence of harm is an aberration and that their job is to dispute or downplay it. Across much of the Agency this has led to actions that have been similarly antithetical to a protective mission.

While Scott Pruitt’s ties to industry and his personal anti-regulation fervor have us duly worried, the Poison Papers show that the dysfunction goes far deeper than any one individual. The EPA has operated largely, even entirely, in favor of the industry it is charged with regulating, yet it maintains the image of a public watchdog in the popular imagination. That is because the biases are subtle. Couched in the language of science and rationality, the bending to industry can look reasonable on the surface; and because separate instances of bias often occur in the EPA’s distinct bureaucratic jurisdictions the full extent of the cooptation is largely unknown, even to those within the system.

How to make the EPA a real protector of public and environmental health 

ADVERTISEMENT

If accurate diagnosis is the first step to a cure, then three solutions readily present themselves.

The first is to empower and reward whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are enormous potential assets to society. If they can prove to the satisfaction of outside judges that the performance of their colleagues is seriously deficient or corrupt, then whistleblowers should be formally and generously rewarded. Adrian Gross was sidelined and deprived of advancement, and others have had their careers and reputations jeopardized. In recent years, we’ve seen this with Cate Jenkins, an EPA chemist who resisted the Agency’s underestimation of the danger of dust at the 9/11 site.

The second solution originates with William Sanjour, another EPA whistleblower and former Branch Chief in its Hazardous Waste Division. While writing regulations Sanjour was specifically instructed to insert loopholes. The loophole instruction arose because the EPA has no separation of powers between its rulemaking (i.e., legislative) functions and its enforcement functions. This is a conflict of responsibilities that we rightly do not tolerate elsewhere in government. The simple solution is to divide the EPA into two agencies, with one half being responsible only for enforcement. This solution is practiced in the UK, where local municipalities enforce many food safety and other rules established nationally.

ADVERTISEMENT

Thirdly, the leaders of each of these separate agencies should be responsible to Congress and not, as the EPA’s administrator now is, solely to the president. The reason is that presently the EPA can only enforce environmental laws if the president acquiesces. It can never be a better environmental and health advocate than the person in the White House. With Trump in charge, the danger of this should be immediately clear.

As Scott Pruitt’s conduct comes under scrutiny and if his position becomes increasingly tenuous, we may be lulled into a sense that the EPA’s integrity is soon to be restored and that the mechanisms of justice are working in the public’s favor. But rescuing the EPA and guaranteeing public safety is going to take more than firing one bad actor. It’s time to heed the lessons of the Poison Papers and make the EPA the servant of the public, not the friend of industry.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and legal efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. And unlike other news outlets, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from billionaires and corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click to donate by check.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. Unlike other news sites, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.



Report typos and corrections to: [email protected]. Send news tips to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Trump’s new press secretary isn’t holding briefings because she fears suffering Sarah Sanders’ ‘fate’: report

Published

on

The White House has a new press secretary, but even if you’re a pretty close follower of political news, you may have missed her.

Stephanie Grisham, who had previously been serving just as First Lady Melania Trump’s communications director, took over for Sarah Sanders as press secretary for President Donald Trump at the beginning of July. She has retained her previous position working for the first lady, and she’s also functioning White House communications director.

One way she has been able to juggle all these duties is that she has declined to hold a single on-camera press briefing since taking over for Sanders. Sanders had once held briefings with some regularity but by the end of tenure, she had gone months without taking questions from reporters in the White House press room. CNN reported Friday that it has been 165 days since a formal on-camera White House briefing.  The State Department and the Pentagon, too, have drastically cut back on their press availabilities.

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Trump had a plan to ‘blow up’ the G7 and give the ‘middle finger’ to our allies: report

Published

on

President Donald Trump’s plan was to bully our G7 allies on a range of issues by touting the strong U.S. economy. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote Friday morning, “Trump will proclaim his ‘America First’ agenda a smashing success, and throw that in the faces of our European allies.”

That plan will have to be changed now that his trade war with China just exploded.

China imposed tariffs of $75 billion of U.S. goods on Friday. Trump launched a tweetstorm causing the DOW to drop more than 600 points (at several times during the day more than 700 points.)

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Court delivers brutal ruling against Kim Davis — the Kentucky clerk who blocked same-sex marriages

Published

on

In 2015, Christian fundamentalist Kim Davis (who was serving as clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky at the time) was praised by the right wing after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — a violation of federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court had just, in effect, legalized same-sex marriage all over the country with its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Some same-sex couples filed a lawsuit in response, and a federal appeals court has reaffirmed that the State of Kentucky will have to pay a hefty amount thanks to Davis.

Continue Reading
 
 

Thank you for whitelisting Raw Story!

As a special thank you, from now until August 31st, we're offering you a discounted rate of $5.99/month to subscribe and get ad-free access. We're honored to have you as a reader. Thank you. :) —Elias, Membership Coordinator
LEARN MORE
close-link
close-image