USEPA Sought To Block "PR Disaster" Report On Chemical Contamination Of Drinking Water

WASHINGTON, DC

A Freedom of Information Act filing by the US’s Union of Concerned Scientists has revealed that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) sought to block a federal government report on water contamination showing that chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than USEPA has previously called safe.

Politico reported this week that USEPA and White House internal emails showed concern that publication of the study by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study, produced by its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) would be a “public relations nightmare” and “a disaster” for USEPA’s reputation as well as the Department of Defense which is responsible for much of the pollution in question, which is associated with chemical plants, US military installations and other sites.

Nationwide, 564 public or private drinking water systems near military bases had contamination above the existing USEPA advisory level as of August 2017, the US military said in a recent report.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The email added: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

More than three months later, the draft study remains unpublished, and ATSDR says it has no scheduled date to release it for public comment. Critics say the delay shows the Trump administration is placing politics ahead of an urgent public health concern.

New Hampshire Democrat Senator Maggie Hassan called the delay "deeply troubling" on Monday, urging Pruitt and President Donald Trump "to immediately release this important study."

USEPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a Donald Trump appointee, has previously come under fire for placing industry advocates in charge of issues like chemical safety.

In April US lawmakers questioned Pruitt about a memo that gives the federal agency central authority to make certain determinations over water pollution standards.

A March 2018 USEPA memo took away the authority of regional EPA officials to make some decisions as to whether a particular body of water can be federally controlled under the Clean Water Act, and gave that authority to the USEPA Administrator.

Senator Tom Carper and Representative Peter DeFazio, both Democrats, said in an April 24 letter that the memo calls into question Pruitt’s “commitment, as EPA Administrator, to follow the law ... as well as to ensure that Clean Water Act decisions are based on established science and precedent, and conducted in a transparent manner", accusing Pruitt of "sidelining" local expertise and describing his actions as "nothing more than a power grab to consolidate absolute authority in your personal offices, with no assurance that you will follow the rule of law, science, or the precedents of the agency in exercising your statutory responsibility under the Clean Water Act to ‘restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters".

Water-related controversy seems to follow Scott Pruitt around. An international environmental advisory group had, also in April, accused the US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator of cronyism and abuse of power.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) described Scott Pruitt, a Donald Trump appointee, as “protecting polluters, not people or their drinking water” through abuse of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

A provision of the legislation authorizes USEPA to quickly hire urgently-needed experts into the agency without having to comply with certain civil service rules or get Senate or White House approval. Pruitt is accused of using that provision to give huge pay increases to two close and largely-inexperienced aides who are currently employed at the agency and politically connected to him. He also used this provision to hire Nancy Beck, a former lobbyist for the chemical industry trade group, to run the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

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