Internal EPA Report Describes “Incredibly Toxic Work Environment” in New Chemicals Division

A survey commissioned by the EPA describes the New Chemicals Division as a workplace rife with industry influence and abusive mismanagement.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images
Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

An internal workplace survey commissioned by the EPA reveals a work environment that agency scientists and other staff describe as “hostile,” “oppressive,” “toxic,” “extremely toxic,” and “incredibly toxic.” After whistleblowers from the Environmental Protection Agency’s New Chemicals Division publicly accused several colleagues and supervisors of altering chemical assessments to make chemicals seem safer, the agency hired consultants to ask employees about their experiences of working in the division, which assesses the safety of chemicals being introduced to the market. A resulting report, completed in January and released in response to a public records request in March, reveals a workforce consumed by internal disputes and torn between the agency’s environmental mission and intense pressure from chemical companies to quickly approve their products on tight deadlines.

For some of the 29 staff members who responded to the survey, those intertwined stressors appear to have turned work into a form of agony. “When I joined the [New Chemicals Division in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics], my expectation was very high because I was standing in the core sector to protect the American public and environment,” one agency employee wrote. “But now I am failing all my excitement for the EPA, my duties, environmental justice for the public, and even as a human being. I am so exhausted and worn out due to the harsh environment.”

“Staff has been told to leave the room when they expressed a scientific opinion which was contrary to management.”

One respondent offered a description of meetings with companies at which risk assessors don’t speak “since they are too afraid.” Another noted that “staff has been told to leave the room when they expressed a scientific opinion which was contrary to management.” And others said that they faced retaliation for raising scientific concerns with their superiors. One staff member reported becoming physically ill in response to the stress in the new chemicals division. In an interview about the workplace, another staff member mentioned that “People are made to cry regularly.”

Although the report was redacted to protect the names of individuals, it nevertheless conveyed a pointed mistrust and fear of particular staff members. “On the conference calls with companies, the Risk Assessors are afraid to talk when [redacted] is there,” one person noted in a one-on-one interview, going on to say that “[redacted] is very hostile and makes false complaints about the Risk Assessors.” Another said, “People are fearful of [redacted].” Even the agency’s effort to solicit the employees’ thoughts and feelings on their work culture, which was done as part of a larger effort to address scientific integrity problems at the agency, didn’t escape fears of retaliation from co-workers. “There was very little participation in one of the listening sessions because [redacted] buddy was logged on to spy,” one staff member noted.

Despite the clear tensions, the responses also show that many employees have retained their enthusiasm for the agency’s mission, which includes protecting public health and the environment from toxic chemicals. “I know that the work I do protects myself and others to ensure that my family, my community, and the greater world can have access to clean safe water, air, and land to thrive on,” one worker wrote. “This brings me immense joy to serve them in this way.”

“Most staff believe that they are not protecting the public and decisions favor industry instead.”

Others lamented the gulf between the agency’s mission and the reality of their jobs. “If I take a moment and step back to look at what the work I am doing might accomplish, I take pride in it,” wrote one staff member quoted in the report. “Yet, this becomes very hard to recognize in the day-to-day. While I can draft an inspiring/impressive blurb about my work, the daily tasks and pace of work can quickly make the highlight reel of my work feel like a complete distortion of the truth.”

Several respondents blamed chemical companies for souring the environment within the agency and suggested that “New managers need to be brought in for OPPT without ties to the industry.” Asked “what makes you feel good about your work and workplace?” one staff member answered, “Not much. OPPT is chaos. Most staff believe that they are not protecting the public and decisions favor industry instead.”

Survey Underscores Whistleblower Allegations

Indeed, many of the responses in the report underscore allegations made by the whistleblowers, who, since July, have been providing The Intercept, the EPA Inspector General, and members of Congress with detailed evidence that some managers and high-level officials within the division of new chemicals have interfered with dozens of assessments. Together the information they have shared — including screenshots of emails, internal reports, and draft chemical assessments — have outlined a pattern of industry influence in the division, in which risk assessors were pressured to minimize or omit the potential harms of chemicals. In several cases, the documents show, managers changed and deleted the risk assessors’ findings when they refused to do it themselves.

While five Ph.D. scientists who worked in the division of new chemicals have supplied the bulk of that evidence, the newly released survey, which the EPA refers to as a “climate assessment,” provides a broader look into the experience of workers in the division. In addition to getting 29 responses to its written questionnaire, the Federal Consulting Group also conducted 13 listening sessions and 10 individual interviews as part of its assessment. (Because some employees may have participated in interviews as well as surveys and listening groups, the total number of participants is unclear.)

The new report, which contains more extensive notes on the listening sessions and interviews as well as direct quotes from the surveys, lays out a range of frustrations felt by workers and reveals a throughline of distrust that appears to divide the staff working on new chemicals. At least one respondent seemed to blame the whistleblowers for the dysfunctional environment. “We are unable to get anything done because we are acutely aware that our meetings are more than likely being recorded without our knowledge and consent,” the person wrote, possibly referring to an audio recording (made by a consultant) of a meeting in which high-priority “hair-on-fire” cases were discussed. Others described being pressured by higher-level staff members to change their scientific findings. Asked “what is impeding your ability to get work done,” one staff member wrote, “Management that micromanages and interferes with staff risk assessments. Assessments were put through multiple rounds of review with the sole purpose of eroding risk finding.” Another responded that “Managers from the Branch Chief level up to the [assistant administrator] level force technical experts to do unethical or illegal things and block scientific information from being released if it says something they don’t like.”

In its depiction of scientists who feel mistrustful of their superiors and unable to properly do their jobs, the new report parallels the findings of a 2020 survey by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. In that survey, which was conducted well before the whistleblowers came forward with their allegations, only 41 percent of 181 staff members of the agency’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, which contains the New Chemicals Division, agreed with the statement that “I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” And a mere 18 percent of respondents to the 2020 survey agreed with the statement that “My organization’s senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.”

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, which has been representing the whistleblowers and submitted the Freedom of Information Act Request for the internal report, said that the newly released document vindicated the group’s clients. “It supports everything they’ve been saying about morale, bullying, and catering to industry,” said Kyla Bennett, director of science policy at PEER. Bennett also criticized the EPA for not voluntarily making the report public: “The fact that EPA did not give this information to the employees is disheartening.”

In an emailed response to questions from The Intercept, the EPA emphasized its intention to resolve the issues roiling the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention: “OCSPP is committed to ensuring the highest level of scientific integrity across the office and takes seriously all allegations of violations of scientific integrity. Additionally, OCSPP is committed to fostering a healthy work environment that promotes respect between all levels of staff, supports work-life balance, provides for an open exchange of differing scientific and policy views, and achieves our mission of protecting human health and the environment.”

Overworked and Under-Resourced

The pressures on the scientists who assess chemicals appears to be intensified by a lack of resources. In October, EPA Assistant Administrator Michal Freedhoff told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the EPA has less than 50 percent of the resources necessary to implement the new chemicals program as Congress had intended. The EPA also blamed its failure to publicly post the risk reports for 1,240 chemicals on a lack of resources. The internal report paints a grim picture of the experience of trying to perform complex scientific evaluations on new chemicals without enough staff or resources.

“We have a handful of human health assessors responsible for all of the new chemicals cases, which means each one might have over a hundred cases they need to keep track of at a given time,” one employee wrote. “That’s too much work and quality can suffer as a result.” Asked what are the most critical things that need to be addressed to improve the organization, one staff member responded “about 4 times as many people as we currently have.”

Part of the problem seems to stem from the increased demands on assessors due to the 2016 update of the Toxic Substance Control Act, also known as the Lautenberg Act. “We are woefully understaffed given the 2016 mandate,” is how one respondent described the crush of work. “Lautenberg requires us to make a risk assessment finding for all cases (400-500 a year) whereas before 2016 we would only need to do so for ~20% of the cases received.”

If funded, the 2023 budget for the EPA, which President Joe Biden released this week, would address some of the problem. The president requested $11.881 billion for the agency, which includes $124 million for “efforts to deliver on the promises made to the American people by the bipartisan Lautenberg Act.” That money would pay for 449 full-time employees and “support EPA-initiated chemical risk evaluations and protective regulations in accordance with statutory timelines,” according to a statement from EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks during an event at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Regan announced the EPA's final rule for federal greenhouse gas (GHG)emissions standards for light duty vehicles. Photographer: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks during an event at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 20, 2021.

Photo: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The EPA has already begun to address some of the issues that were raised in the climate assessment, which began in October. That month, after The Intercept published four articles detailing the whistleblowers’ allegations, the EPA announced it was taking several steps to improve scientific integrity in both the New Chemicals Division and the Office of Pesticide Programs, which has also faced criticism of industry influence. The agency created two internal science policy advisory councils, one of which will focus on the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. The EPA also said it planned to review scientific and science policy issues related to new chemical submissions and improve decision-making and record-keeping practices related to review and management of new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The agency announced it would be improving its standard operating procedures, or SOPs.

It’s hard to imagine these basic documents, which are meant to provide clear, written instructions on how to perform routine activities, causing unrest. Yet according to one EPA employee who was quoted in the climate assessment, even writing SOPs has proven a source of painful contention about how to deal with industry involvement. “We can’t write SOPs because we might forget a reference that the American Chemistry Council might have wanted to be included and if they ask for us to include a reference that we didn’t at the start then the whole thing has to be thrown out and we have to perform a sacrifice to redeem ourselves in the eyes of some unknown god,” wrote the employee. The American Chemistry Council is a trade group that represents many chemical companies.

In January, the EPA released a memo about the climate assessment, in which it summarized the findings in the survey and acknowledged that the employees had expressed fear, anger, frustration, and disappointment about working in the New Chemicals Division. In the memo, Freedhoff also reiterated her commitment to “taking the appropriate actions to address any inappropriate behaviors in the workplace” in certain circumstances, including in response to recommendations from the inspector general. Freedhoff also reaffirmed her commitment to taking actions in response to substantiated cases of harassment, scientific integrity violations, and recommendations from the inspector general in a February interview with The Intercept.

In its statement to The Intercept, the EPA once again underscored Freedhoff’s commitment to resolving the problems within the New Chemicals Division, which is part of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “Dr. Freedhoff is focused on fostering a collaborative workplace environment that enables OCSPP staff to better work together to protect human health and the environment and return to long-standing practices and procedures that may have been disregarded by the previous Administration,” the statement read.

The EPA also noted some recent changes the agency has made to support scientific integrity and strengthen the new chemicals program. Among the new efforts are a program to streamline the review of new chemicals; a partnership with the Office of Research and Development to modernize the review process; and the appointment of Stan Barone as the new science policy adviser in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

For some, the changes are already too late. Throughout the report, survey respondents and interviewees mention former colleagues who have left the unpleasant work circumstances to take other jobs. “People leave due to the bad upper management, feeling happy that they no longer have to deal with terrible management and then convincing others to leave,” one worker wrote. Another tied the departures to the division’s scientific integrity problems, writing, “The staff knows that their only recourse, when confronted with unethical or illegal actions by management, is to leave.”

Others were clear that they hoped to follow their co-workers out the door. Asked “what is your greatest hope going forward?” one employee responded, “That I find a new job as soon as possible.” Another wrote: “Willing to take a lateral or move to a different agency to escape this broken organization.”

Yet still others seemed committed to finding a way to keep doing science at the agency, affirming their allegiance to their work at the New Chemicals Division, if not its current workplace cultures. “I want to have a safe working place without being bullied, discriminated against,” one scientist wrote. Another agreed, expressing the desire to continue doing the work but with one big caveat: “That I no longer have to fear that management interference could result in a decision or assessment that I worked on/contributed to harming human health and the environment.”

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