5 (Recent) Actions That Epitomize Andrew Wheeler’s Caustic Chemical Safety Legacy

January 15, 2021 | 12:53 pm
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

As peoples’ minds have rightfully been on the state of our democracy and the Trump administration has been shedding agency heads left and right after inciting insurrection, the EPA’s administrator Andrew Wheeler has stuck around to finalize a long list of destructive items that represent the administration’s agenda all along: industry profits over public health.

Specifically, in its final days, the administration has taken a wrecking ball to the scientific basis for public protections against hazardous chemicals. Wheeler even had the gall to promote the EPA’s Environmental Justice report, after we know that under his leadership, longstanding inequities have been neglected or made even worse. For example, environmental contaminants have not been as readily cleaned up at Superfund sites in communities of color. And Wheeler has weakened safety assessments of harmful chemicals by failing to use the best available science, which means fewer protection for those already carrying the burden of environmental toxics

It’s important to note that behind each of these actions there are EPA career scientists doing important work at the agency, but who have been thwarted by political officials at the EPA or the White House at different stages of the process.

Here are just five actions from the past two weeks that illuminate the Trump administration’s toxic legacy on chemical safety:

#1: Reversed course on bans for TCE, NMP, and Methylene Chloride

In today’s federal register, the EPA announced its intention not to finalize several bans proposed by its own staff under the Obama administration for three highly toxic chemicals: TCE, NMP, and methylene chloride. Over the past few years, the Trump administration has actively worked to delay or weaken these proposed bans and then reassess the chemicals using methods that were criticized by its own Scientific Advisory Committee on Chemicals. Last year, the White House was inappropriately involved in rewriting the EPA’s risk evaluation for TCE (a chemical used in dry cleaning and vapor degreasing facilities which can cause cancer and has development effects), downplaying the association between exposure and fetal heart defects. In 2019, the EPA issued a partial ban on methylene chloride (a chemical used in paint strippers linked to cancer and can be acutely lethal) for consumer uses, failing to adequately protect workers at risk of illness and death.

In response, the Environmental Defense Fund’s lead senior scientist, Richard Denison, stated that “It appears that blocking these bans and denying crucial protections to workers and consumers for four years was not enough for the Trump EPA. This shameful move that epitomizes the Trump EPA’s concerted attacks on public health is a transparent attempt to further constrain the incoming administration. It is yet another stain on Mr. Wheeler’s dismal record.”

#2: Pressured scientists to weaken PFBS risk assessment

A Politico story on Wednesday reported on news from internal EPA sources that risk assessment for PFBS (a short-chain PFAS replacement for PFOS used in firefighting foam, food packaging, and other products) was significantly weakened by issuing a range for reference doses rather than a single number. The change was made by staffers in the agency’s pesticides office at the direction of political officials, not the career scientists at the EPA who have been working on this assessment for years. In fact, several of those scientists would not put their names on the document as a result.

Typically, the EPA’s IRIS program conducts a systematic review of the best available evidence and suggests a single reference dose (RfD), which is the amount of something one can be exposed to in the short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic), which is likely to result in a low risk of negative health effects. The inclusion of a range of values is something that industry has been advocating for because it allows states to pick the preferable end of the range to set their standards, possibly ignoring risks to the most sensitive populations. This also has the fingerprints of Nancy Beck and tracks all the way back to her highly-criticized attempt to meddle with risk assessments while working at OIRA in this 2006 Draft Bulletin.

The additional White House review that this document was purportedly subject to opens it and future scientific documents up to political scrutiny and more delay. This is an unacceptable outcome for a scientific document that would serve to help states and the EPA set standards to protect all of us from the dangers of this PFOS-substitute in drinking water.

#3: Weakened guidance on PFAS in imported products

On Monday, The Hill reported on documents they obtained that revealed White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) interference in the EPA’s guidance on PFAS imports. The guidance sent to OMB weighed banning the import of products containing PFAS in any part of a product, but OMB’s significant and substantive changes limited the ban to only products coated with PFAS. As Melanie Benesh from Environmental Working Group illustrates, “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.” OIRA’s involvement in evaluating guidance documents is a Trump administration overreach into agency discretion on matters on which the agency has extensive expertise.

#4: Denied North Carolina petition for industry to pay for testing of PFAS-contaminated water

Late last week, the EPA denied a petition submitted in October by Center for Environmental Health, Clean Cape Fear River Watch, Clean Cape Fear, Democracy Green, Toxic Free NC, and the NC Black Alliance. It simply asked the agency to use its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to require Chemours, a PFAS polluter based in NC, to submit testing data and fund independent health studies to determine the exposure risks of 54 PFAS present in the Cape Fear River watershed. The denial letter speaks to the problems inherent to our chemical regulatory system that allow the release of chemicals without adequate evidence of their safety and with no requirements for industry to pay for further testing or independent review.

The great irony is that TSCA allows for these massive data gaps, fails to require industry to fill them, and then uses them as a justification for being unable to set health-protective standards.

This action also speaks to  Wheeler’s utter failure to listen to the needs of impacted communities. La’Meshia Whittington, campaign director for the North Carolina Black Alliance stated, “It’s preposterous that the EPA has chosen to dilute the intent of the petition and prioritize corporate interest over the needs of the communities affected in North Carolina. This decision reflects the environment the outgoing administration created, poison over our health and profit over the people. We won’t stop here. We will continue to fight against our water being poisoned, and children left without a basic human right of access to clean water.”

#5: Finalized the flawed restricting science rule

On January 6th, the EPA announced its final rule that dramatically restricts the science the agency can consider in rulemaking. It would downweight studies that rely on any nonpublic data—including studies involving private medical records, interfering with many key public-health studies the agency relies on to set safeguards for chemicals. This rule was issued despite opposition from the scientific community and nearly one million comments overwhelmingly against its finalization. It was also issued and made immediately effective, which goes against typical procedure of a 30-day finalization window. A new lawsuit from the Environmental Defense Fund, The Montana Environmental Information Center, and Citizens for Clean Energy are challenging the legality of the process by which it was rushed through the door at the 11th hour.

In response, UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy Director Andrew Rosenberg stated that, “It’s even more egregious that EPA has chosen to finalize these restrictions on science during the worst public health crisis in our lifetimes. This rule would interfere with the agency’s urgent, ongoing work on a range of issues—including links between environmental factors and COVID-19, the impacts of wildfire smoke on public health, and the effects of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on children—by undermining the EPA’s ability to use the best available science. It’s a willful decision to throw away the exact tools the agency needs now.”

The new administration must follow the science

President-elect Biden has repeatedly said his administration will listen to the science and that science will guide policy decisions. UCS will hold him to this promise and fight to reverse all of the many damaging changes that have been made to undermine science-based assessments and related policies at the EPA. We look forward to working with the incoming administration to undo these destructive policy decisions. New leadership at the EPA must commit to listening to its scientists, upholding scientific integrity, and using the best available science to craft policies that protect everyone’s health and safety.