Trump administration officials withheld information about carcinogenic pollution from Illinois communities, according to a report released yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general. Bill Wehrum, who served as assistant administrator of the office of Air and Radiation until 2019, kept information from residents of Willowbrook, Illinois, about results of air monitoring that showed they had an elevated risk of cancer due to ethylene oxide from a local sterilizing plant, according to the report, “EPA Delayed Risk Communication and Issued Instructions Hindering Region 5’s Ability to Address Ethylene Oxide Emissions,” which was produced in response to a request from Congress.
Measurement of the levels of ethylene oxide around the facility, which was owned by Sterigenics and has since closed, was conducted in May 2018 and showed an elevated risk of cancer due to the gas. In June, the regional administrator responsible for the area was briefed on the monitoring results and was preparing to release them to the public by posting them to the agency’s website. According to the report, “the then-Region 5 regional administrator expressed concern about the monitoring results and wanted to immediately release them to the public to avoid another public health emergency like the Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis.”
But Wehrum, who was not mentioned by name but referred to as “then-assistant administrator for air and radiation,” directed the regional administrator not to release the results to the public, according to the report. Before serving as head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Wehrum was a lobbyist who represented chemical and oil companies. He left the post in 2019, while under scrutiny from the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the EPA’s inspector general. The Senate report found Wehrum was instituting changes that would increase air pollution and benefit his former clients at the lobbying firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP.
Wehrum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In August 2018, the regional office of the EPA that covers Illinois did post the results of the monitoring on its website, but only briefly. “The Region 5’s webpage on Sterigenics facility monitoring was online for about an hour before the then-deputy assistant administrator for Air and Radiation directed Region 5 to take the webpage down,” according to the report.
The inspector general’s report also notes that the EPA did not meet with residents of Lake County who were exposed to the same gas.
The report does not explore the role of Wehrum or other EPA staff in deciding not to inform residents of dozens of other communities exposed to ethylene oxide of the dangers they faced. In a 2019 investigation, The Intercept found that more than 100 census tracts had elevated cancer risk due to ethylene oxide pollution. The vast majority of the people in these communities were not notified of the risk they faced. In an investigation published in March, The Intercept found that the Trump EPA encouraged companies to change their reported ethylene oxide emissions to a publicly available database called the Toxics Release Inventory. That story also found that the agency had conducted modeling that revealed ethylene oxide emissions from a plant in Port Neches, Texas, caused elevated cancer risk in an area around the plant that stretched more than 1,000 square miles, but the agency didn’t inform residents living there.
The inspector general’s report concludes that the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation “senior leaders issued instructions that hindered Region 5’s efforts to address ethylene oxide in a timely manner,” and the “EPA did not act consistently with its mission or guidance on risk communication.” The report requests a written response from the agency within 60 days.