COMMENTARY | EPA’s Toxic Culture: Oversight Update

Tim Whitehouse


EPA’s Toxic Culture: Oversight Update

There have been several positive developments in PEER’s efforts to expose the corrupt culture within EPA’s new chemicals program. EPA’s New Chemicals program is supposed to help manage the potential risk to human health and the environment from chemicals new to the marketplace, including novel PFAS.

First, top Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce have requested a briefing from EPA on whistleblower allegations of fraud and wrongdoing within the agency’s chemicals programs, calling the allegations “troubling” if true.

The request comes in response to a recent disclosure made by PEER to the Committee on behalf of the four EPA scientists. In their disclosure, the EPA scientists detail the inordinate amount of influence the chemical industry has within the EPA, including a disturbing level of direct, personal access to program managers, risk assessors, and political appointees. Moreover, and more troubling, managers proactively changed chemical assessments in ways that favor industry and eliminate risks to human health, and they allowed chemicals to enter commerce despite insufficient or incomplete data on these risks.

A second positive development is that EPA’s Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP), Dr. Michal Freedhoff, sent an email to staff underscoring the need for staff to be able to build off of each other’s expertise and experience in OCSPP and promising that in the coming weeks, OCSPP Senior Leadership will announce additional ways to cultivate and enhance collaboration, science and scientific integrity across OCSPP.

That such an email was necessary speaks volumes to the state of affairs in EPA’s chemicals program. Last week, PEER wrote to Dr. Freedhoff,  requesting that she adopt a policy prohibiting restrictions on intra-agency communications and encouraging intra-agency consultation whenever appropriate or helpful. One tactic EPA managers use to control the outcome of chemical risks assessments is to forbid EPA risk assessors from communicating with other specialists. In their disclosure, the scientists recount being reprimanded for reaching out to other employees for advice and confirmation of their work, even though EPA’s chemicals program has a shortage of scientists.

These are small but positive steps in our efforts to address the problems raised by our clients. However, reforming EPA’s chemicals program will require more than small steps. Our clients’ disclosures reveal that malfeasance at the EPA has trickled down below political appointees to managers and some career employees. The toxic culture in EPA will not change unless there are repercussions for misconduct and there is a complete retooling of the new chemicals program. This will require a sustained long-term commitment by EPA’s senior leadership and Congress, and it will require that the Biden administration prioritize public health and the environment over the profits of the chemical industry.

Tim Whitehouse, Executive Director of PEERTim Whitehouse is the Executive Director of PEER. Among other things, Tim formerly served as an EPA enforcement attorney.

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