Scott Pruitt's tenure as head of the US' Environmental Protection Agency has often been bogged down in scandals involving questionable spending and the unjustifiable rollback of regulations.
But the latest controversy is one the agency's own making. This morning, Pruitt was speaking at a workshop convened to discuss the handling of specific chemical contaminants that have been found in water supplies. The EPA was already under fire for what appeared to be an attempt to stall a report that suggests these chemicals were more toxic than previously thought, so the workshop provided an opportunity to show that the agency took the risks seriously. Instead, the EPA started a brand-new controversy by specifically excluding CNN and the AP from Pruitt's speech and by having security physically escort a reporter out of the building.
The controversy focuses on a large class of chemicals that are variations of perfluorooctanoic acid. This is a chain of eight carbon atoms, seven of which have fluorine atoms attached to them; the eighth is linked to two oxygen atoms, typical of an organic acid. There are many variations of perfluorooctanoic acid that can be made by substituting for various fluorines, and many of these variants have found uses in the production of everything from non-stick cooking to fire-fighting foams.
Unfortunately, these variations also appear to cause significant health risks, with epidemiological studies suggesting connections to cancers, thyroid disease, and changes in cholesterol metabolism. As a result, the EPA had already instituted standards that were intended to limit environmental contamination and human exposure. Those issues were already impacting the Department of Defense, which identified over 100 sites where contamination exceeded the EPA's limits.
That's where things stood when the Department of Health and Human Services stepped in. Its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted a survey of the latest research on these chemicals and prepared a report that indicated that human health issues could occur at levels far below those allowed under the EPA rules. The report was shared with other federal agencies in advance of publication in the Federal Registry.
And that's when the White House and EPA got involved. An unidentified staffer started an email chain in which he noted the Health and Human Services report would suggest limiting exposures to levels substantially lower than current standards demand. "The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers," the email suggests, "is going to be huge. The impact to EPA and DoD [Department of Defense] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get [Health and Human Services] to realize the potential public-relations nightmare this is going to be."
Part of the ensuing discussion involves scientific questions about the tests used to establish exposure levels, and another EPA official suggested that an interagency review could help the different departments to develop a single standard. But the press reports that ensued (here are two examples) focused on the "public-relations nightmare," which suggested the a review was suggested only because of the bad publicity the report would create for the Defense Department. There was also the inconvenient matter that the report, which was referred to as "pending," hadn't yet seen the light of day.
Since the initial reports, however, it came out that the day following these emails, EPA staff had immediately consulted representatives of the chemical industry regarding what to do about these chemicals.
Meet, but dont greet
This might be a case where greater transparency would provide a clear indication of what the Trump administration was doing about the report and how the EPA's actions would lead to more coherent government response. And a two-day workshop regarding the chemicals, hosted by the EPA and featuring agency head Scott Pruitt would provide a perfect opportunity.
Instead, the EPA prevented several media outlets from attending: the Associated Press, CNN, and E&E News. According to the AP, its reporter was held by her shoulders as security guards pushed her "forcibly" outside the EPA headquarters.
When asked about this, an EPA spokesperson stated that there were space constraints in the room where Pruitt was speaking. However, reporters from outlets that were allowed to attend noted several vacant seats in the room. Later that day, well after Pruitt spoke, the EPA reversed course and announced that all media would be welcome for the remainder of the meeting.
We still have no indication of when the report will be published in the Federal Register, and we don't know what changed in our understanding of these chemicals that prompted Health and Human Services to suggest lower exposure tolerances. But the EPA's actions today made it more likely that the agency will be facing these questions more insistently in the future.