EPA and White House Blocked Contaminated Water Study Dreading ‘Public Relations Nightmare’


The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is about to propose more stringent safe levels for fluorinated chemicals in drinking water. The ATSR wants the safe level to be almost six times stricter than EPA’s recommendation.  However, earlier email exchanges show that the U.S. EPA and OMB officials are worried over an unreleased study from the Health and Human Services (HHS) on a class of chemicals that have polluted water supplies close to 126 U.S. military installations. The U.S government officials are trying to block the release of the potentially damaging HHS report that says exposure to the chemicals reported is not safe even in much lower amounts than EPA has set.

The quantities of the chemicals, widely known as Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), exceeded the amount that EPA considered safe, according to the Department of Defense study in May. The PFOS and PFOA are the most extensively produced among the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs.

Both PFASs don’t break down whether in the human body or in the environment; they can accumulate after long periods of time. Both chemicals were listed as Prop 65 carcinogens last year.

The perflourinated compounds are in the firefighting foam used by the military. The Defense Department reported that some studies have linked them to kidney, testicular and prostate cancer in addition to fertility problems and delayed development of fetuses and children.

An OMB official mentioned a possible “public relations nightmare” upon the release of the HHS report. The emails were discovered through the Freedom of Information Act request from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Energy and Science at White House Office of Management and Budget associate director for Natural Resources James Hertz laid out the concerns in an email to Holly Greaves, EPA Chief Financial Officer.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these new numbers is going to be huge. The impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful,” wrote an unidentified White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs official in the message that Herz forwarded to Greaves.

The unidentified official added that EPA and DoD can’t seem to convince ATSDR that releasing the HHS report could be a “public relations nightmare.”

In another email, EPA’s Office of Research and Development deputy assistant administrator Richard Yamada wrote that he is not sure their agency’s scientists would agree with the estimate of HHS which is “10 fold lower than most.”

Another email dated January 30, 2018, showed a suggestion from the head of EPA’s chemical safety office Nancy Beck, that the OMB act as “neutral arbiter” to speed up interagency review before the ATSDR study is released.

Beck, who is a former lobbyist for the chemical industry said that interagency review was common during the administration of George W. Bush.  However, during the Obama administration, each agency did its own thing. An EPA official wrote that now it seems like the ATSDR also does its own thing and will release its proposed safe levels without interagency review.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also got emails from EPA staffers that showed that HHS staff had calls from OMB and EPA to discuss the study as well as the different approaches used by other agencies.

The ATSDR is part of the Centers for Disease Control, under the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Unlike Scott Pruitt’s Pollution Protection Agency, there is still one government agency clearly trying to safeguard the public from these dangerous chemicals,” said Environmental Working Group president, Ken Cook.

The EPA’s advisory recommends against drinking water with more than 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, of PFOA and PFOS. But according to the emails, ATSDR is preparing to publish a draft toxicological profile for those chemicals and two other PFAS chemicals that recommends “very, very low” minimal risk levels for the chemicals, starting from as low as 12 ppt.

ATSDR based its’ proposal on the chemicals’ potential risk of weakening the immune system, and the recommendation of 12 ppt is almost identical to New Jersey’s recently adopted legal limits for PFOA and another PFAS chemical.

While ATSDR’s minimal risk levels are not legally binding standards, but screening levels intended to identify contaminant levels of concern at hazardous waste sites.

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also had some choice words for Administrator Pruitt, saying, I’m a simple guy so I have a simple remedy when people like Pruitt ignore or hide pollution: if you don’t have a problem with Americans drinking contaminated drinking water, drink it yourself until you tap out or resign.”

About Jack Schatz

Jack Schatz began writing about Proposition 65 and other U.S. environmental laws in 1994. He has also written extensively about Consumer Product safety and product liability issues as well. He is the publisher and co-author of the 2013 and 2017 and upcoming 2020 editions of the Proposition 65 Handbook.He was graduated by the San Diego State School of Journalism.
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