EPA Plans to Clean Up Troubled Chemical and Pesticide Programs

The EPA announced the creation of two internal scientific advisory panels after whistleblower accounts of internal corruption.

A flag hangs over an entrance to the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2017. Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency laid out plans to improve scientific integrity today, including the creation of two internal science policy advisory councils. One will focus on the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics and the Office of Pesticide Programs and will be chaired by a science policy adviser, a new senior-level role within the agency. The EPA will also be overhauling its New Chemicals Division.

The announcement comes after The Intercept reported extensively on allegations of corruption from five whistleblowers within the New Chemicals Division, which is part of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, and detailed extensive problems within the Office of Pesticide Programs.

The whistleblowers have provided detailed evidence of interference with the assessment of dozens of new chemicals submitted to the agency by companies planning to introduce them to market. The scientists documented intense pressure within the agency to downplay or remove evidence of the potential harms caused by chemicals, including neurological effects, birth defects, and cancer. They also reported that their findings were altered or deleted from assessments without their knowledge.

The EPA described its planned effort to shore up scientific integrity at the New Chemicals Division as “a top-to-bottom effort to catalogue, prioritize, and improve its standard operating procedures (SOPs), decision-making and record-keeping practices related to review and management of new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act.” The agency’s “New Chemicals Advisory Committee,” one of the two new internal advisory groups, will review scientific and science policy issues related to new chemical submissions.

“Strong, sound science underpins confidence in our decision-making among the public that we serve. Today’s announcements are the latest in a series of steps OCSPP is taking to reaffirm our commitment to scientific integrity and restore the public trust,” said Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Since taking office, President Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed his intention to root out the influence of industry on environmental policy, which had flourished during the previous administration.

But Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the organization representing the whistleblowers, is skeptical that the proposed changes will adequately address the extensive problems at the agency if the EPA doesn’t also punish staff members found to have violated scientific integrity.

“While these processes and procedures can improve the situation within the offices, they cannot change the culture within the agency,” said Whitehouse. “The core problem at EPA that needs to be addressed is that mid-level managers who violate scientific integrity rules and policies need to be held accountable. And that does not appear to be happening.”

The manipulation of chemical assessments that the whistleblowers have brought to light is only a part of a larger problem at the agency, according to Whitehouse. “I would hope that senior managers and political leaders in EPA reach out and personally meet with and talk to, not just our clients, but the dozens and dozens of people that have filed scientific integrity complaints against their management,” he said.

The EPA inspector general is currently investigating the allegations made by the whistleblowers.

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