What is the Responsible Science Policy Coalition? Here Are Some Clues

September 25, 2018 | 3:46 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

An interesting new group has popped up called the Responsible Science Policy Coalition (RSPC) that seems to have a significant interest in chemical safety policy. Are they legitimate? As Congress prepares for another hearing into the dangers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, it’s worth digging into who these folks might be.

PFAS have been in the news quite a bit recently because the White House was caught censoring a report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) on the health effects of PFAS exposure. These chemicals are widely used in products ranging from nonstick cookware to water-repellant fabrics, and they are especially prevalent in the water at military bases due to their use in firefighting foam. Bipartisan outrage about the censorship was swift and sustained, and the report was released in June. A new UCS analysis shows that many military bases have potentially unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water.

PFAS are used in firefighting foam. Some military bases have unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water. Photo: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

In July, the Responsible Science Policy Coalition surfaced at a meeting of the Council of Western Attorneys General where they expressed being “eager to help your state with your issues.” In their presentation to the attorneys general, the RSPC argued that there are “lots of problems with existing PFAS studies” and that these studies “don’t show the strength of association needed to support causation.”

The RSPC also submitted a comment on the ATSDR draft toxicology assessment that extensively detailed why, in their view, ATSDR’s scientific approach was sub-par.

Who is supporting the RSPC?

Where, then, did the Responsible Science Policy Coalition come from, and why do they care so much about PFAS? Here’s what we know. According to the PowerPoint presentation, RSPC is a new coalition made up of 3M, Johnson Controls, and unnamed other companies.

The inclusion of 3M is particularly notable because the company spent decades hiding the science about the dangers of PFAS. 3M used such chemicals in many highly-used products including Scotchgard and firefighting foam. According to the Intercept:

A lawsuit filed by Minnesota against 3M, the company that first developed and sold PFOS and PFOA, the two best-known PFAS compounds, has revealed that the company knew that these chemicals were accumulating in people’s blood for more than 40 years. …The company even had evidence back then of the compounds’ effects on the immune system…

The suit, which the Minnesota attorney general filed in 2010, charges that 3M polluted groundwater with PFAS compounds and “knew or should have known” that these chemicals harm human health and the environment, and “result in injury, destruction, and loss of natural resources of the State.” The complaint argues that 3M “acted with a deliberate disregard for the high risk of injury to the citizens and wildlife of Minnesota.” 3M settled the suit for $850 million in February, and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office released a large set of documents…detailing what 3M knew about the chemicals’ harms.

The government can protect families from excessive exposure to PFAS, but only with access to independent scientific information. Photo: nicdalic/Flickr

And you thought all they made was Post-its and tape!

RSPC seems to be led by Jonathan Glendill and James Votaw. Glenhill is the president of the Policy Navigation Group, whose list of past and present clients is dominated by industry groups. Votaw is a lawyer for Keller and Heckman; the address given for RSPC is the address of Keller and Heckman’s DC offices. Votaw has signed the three comments from RSPC on the ATSDR study (the first two were extension requests). Votaw’s practice concentrates on environmental and health and safety regulation, including chemicals and pesticides.

Keller and Heckman’s chemicals practice is more circumspect, but their pesticides practice is described in part as “[helping] clients defend existing markets worldwide against governmental pressure and environmentalist activism.” They can help companies “defend against an EPA enforcement action” and “secure successful tolerance reassessments.”

How many groups like this are there?

A name like the Responsible Science Policy Coalition makes insinuations of course—that most people are pulling numbers out of thin air and pursuing haphazard or irresponsible science policy, and we really need some adults in the room. The same words are reused again and again in the names of these types of organizations, and “responsible” is no different. There’s the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy, the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Reform, the Coalition for Responsible Regulation, and more.

Less charitably, groups like RSPC are known as front groups. Disguised by innocuous-sounding names and with a veneer of independence, they principally exist to create doubt and confusion about the state of the science to avoid regulation of the products their members create. Plenty of industries have them. The American Council on Science and Health has long conducted purportedly independent science that was in fact funded by corporate interests. The Groundwater Protection Council fights federal regulation of fracking. The Western States Petroleum Association, the top lobbyist for the oil industry in the western United States, was found in 2014 to be running at least sixteen different front groups in order to undermine forward-looking policies like California’s proposal to place transportation fuels under the state’s carbon cap.

Could the Responsible Science Policy Coalition meet its stated goal to “accelerate research and promote best practices and best available science in policy decisions?” Perhaps. But those looking to RSPC for advice should be wary of the fact that so far, it seems to exist to encourage more relaxed regulation of PFAS chemicals – a decision that is worth a lot of money to the organization’s key members.