Opinion: Does the EPA care anymore about public health?

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In sports, it’s referred to as sample size.

The idea is that future athletic performance can be relatively confidently predicted based on enough accumulated data.

Take the Chicago Blackhawks as a case in point.

The NHL team opened this season with a 10-1 dismantling of the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

But that does not mean the ‘Hawks were designed to win all their games, while scoring 820 goals and giving up 82.

One game a season does not make.

By mid-season the Hawks’ sample size told an entirely different story.

As it turned out Chicago could barely defend itself out of a paper bag (especially in the third period), and gave every indication of missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

By season end Chicago was last in its division and out of the playoffs.

Sample size. Collect enough data and reasonable projections can be made with some degree of confidence.

Which brings me to Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt.

One of the first things Pruitt did after being confirmed was to spend more than $43,000 of taxpayer money on a soundproof phone booth so no one would know what he was doing.  Not his chief of staff, nor EPA staffers, nor – and this is the key point – the American public.

Holy Maxwell Smart cone of silence.

Incidentally the U.S. Government Accountability Office ruled last week that Pruitt and the EPA violated law, failing to obtain financial approval from lawmakers for the soundproof phone booth.

It’s important to note the EPA is tasked with public safety; is the air safe to breath? Is the water safe to drink? Is the fruit we eat safe from toxic chemicals (a whole lot more on that in just a second).

The EPA is supposed to act in the public interest. In order to do that, the agency must be transparent.   But we’ve accumulated enough sample size to say that Pruitt operates in secrecy.

Which brings me to the highly toxic chemical chlorpyrifos.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for the Centers for Disease Control and Protection notes chlorpyrifos “may cause effects on the nervous system, resulting in convulsions and respiratory depression .”

There remains an ongoing debate of chlorpyrifos’ potential long term effects on the human body. The EPA banned most residential uses of chlorpyrifos in 2000 and the agency had until the end of March 2017 to decide whether to ban it altogether.

The chemical is widely used in specialty crop farming.

Back in January 2016, Syngenta got caught with its hand in the cookie jar when President Barack Obama’s EPA determined the seed and pesticide giant failed to protect workers at a Hawaii corn farm from exposure to chlorpyrifos.  The EPA eventually fined Syngenta $480,000 in civil penalties.

But Syngenta did not pay the fine because Obama was on his way out of the Oval Office and perhaps the next president and his or her EPA would be more lenient.

As it turned out, Pruitt rejected the proposed EPA chlorpyrifos ban on March 29, 2017, saying there remained scientific uncertainty surrounding the chemical while not outright denying EPA findings under Obama, and promising to do more research.

Syngenta was awarded for its patience.

Pruitt’s EPA lowered the civil penalty to $150,000 and required it spend $400,000 on worker protection training.

So … how did a chemical Obama’s EPA deemed dangerous and toxic in 2016 become safe for all to use in Pruitt’s EPA in 2017?

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the New York Times requested all EPA email documents related to its decision to reverse its recommendation to ban  chlorpyrifos.

The emails paint EPA sympathy for Dow AgriSciences LLC, the company that manufactures chlorpyrifos.

“Pruitt promised that the Trump administration and his tenure represented a “new day” in terms of the relationship with their industry.”

Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, in charge of EPA’s chemical and pesticides program advocated for the chlorpyrifos ban.

But that did not sit well with Pruitt Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson who demanded other alternatives.

The New York Times reports “the decision on the pesticide ban was made in the middle of an effort by the EPA. to step up its efforts to curb federal regulations,” an effort spearheaded by Samantha Dravis who heads EPA’s Office of Policy.

Jackson and Dravis pushed back hard on Hamnett’s desire to ban chlorpyrifos.

Jackson demanded Hamnett provide alternatives.

Hamnett presented Jackson with three choices:  1) approve the ban; 2) negotiate a slow phase out of chlorpyrifos and deny the formal petition to ban it; or 3) deny the ban based on the fact that the EPA was under a new White House and to announce a review of chlorpyrifos until 2022.

Dow AgriSciences LLC complained to  EPA about the chlorpyrifos ban on January 16, 2017.

Internal EPA discussion began almost immediately.

Jackson picked option three at some point between March 9 and March 13.

Nowhere in the FOIA emails in this time frame is any  discussion on whether or not chlorpyrifos is safe to use.

After Jackson decides to deny the ban of chlorpyrifos internal discussions turn to plans to meet with agricultural industry leaders in an effort to “improve industry relations.”

Deep breath.

It is rather remarkable that EPA gave the New York Times the internal email discussion regarding chlorpyrifos, given the agency’s wish to be opaque.

By the way the same month, January 2017, that Dow AgriSciences LLC was complaining to EPA about the potential chlorpyrifos ban, a Syngenta worker reported another chlorpyrifos-exposure incident at the same Hawaii facility.

Syngenta and the Pruitt EPA agreed to settle the matter not in civil court, but rather through a dispute resolution process which ultimately showed no findings of liability.

Given the other things (sample size) we know about EPA – denying climate change, firing of EPA scientists, loosening regulations on toxic air pollution, moving to end the Clean Power plan, lagging enforcement of environmental laws to name just a few –  is it reasonable to suggest that EPA today is less interested about public health and safety than in the previous administration?

And what does the public not know?

Pruitt has shut the door on openness.  There is no public record about what Pruitt discusses at meetings with lobbyists and executives of industries EPA regulates.

Ultimately at risk is public trust of EPA to be there to protect our land and people.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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