Timothy Whitehouse on the Corporate Capture of the EPA Chemicals and Pesticides Program

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is maneuvering to shirk much of its responsibility for addressing the PFAS contamination crisis by narrowing the definition of per-  and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) it will use.

The net result will leave thousands of PFAS largely unregulated under EPA’s emerging definition that varies widely from those adopted by states and other nations.

That’s according to a report released recently from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

In June 2021, EPA unveiled a new “working definition” for PFAS that differed markedly from definitions used by other entities. EPA offered no scientific explanation for this new definition. 

It also stalled a PEER Freedom of Information Act request for the definition’s origin, ultimately prompting PEER to file a FOIA suit. After more than a year of litigation, EPA still remains unable to produce any records justifying its action.

The agency then pivoted, disclosing earlier this year it is no longer using this “working definition” in favor of a new “case-by-case approach” designed to be more lenient and “flexible” in handling the estimated 12,000 or more PFAS species.

“EPA claims to be a science-based agency, but on PFAS the only discipline exhibited has been political science,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, who has long urged that PFAS chemicals be regulated uniformly as a class rather than employing the chemical-by-chemical approach EPA appears to have adopted. “This new shifting standard is devoid of any scientific rigor and will undoubtedly subject every EPA regulatory decision to a lobbyist feeding frenzy.”

Instead of banning persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) PFAS that are expected to lead to exposure and releases, EPA is calling for additional testing, which does not protect human health and the environment, PEER said.

EPA is backtracking on a pledge to remove PFAS detected in an array of pesticides, many of which are aerially sprayed over agricultural crops.

And EPA is quietly supporting a legislative rewrite of the Superfund law with a PFAS definition that is exceedingly narrow and is at variance with the definitions adopted in many states as well as the European Union and Canada.

“EPA’s approach to addressing PFAS more resembles a three-card monte dealer than a public health agency,” Bennett said, noting that EPA has made no apparent effort to harmonize its efforts with the approaches adopted by other countries and several states. 

“On PFAS, EPA has adopted the posture championed by chemical companies while ignoring the almost universal advice from public health professionals,” Bennett said.

Why is EPA acting this way?

Two words – corporate capture.

That’s according to PEER’s executive director, Timothy Whitehouse.

“We have been very involved in the last four years with EPA’s chemicals and pesticides programs,” Whitehouse told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “Those programs have been captured by the industry. That capture has gotten worse over the years. And a number of scientists from EPA have come to us with compelling documentation about how the EPA will routinely approve chemicals that are dangerous to human health with no mitigation measures. And mid-level and senior managers will routinely override staff scientists who raise health concerns about some of these chemicals. The senior and mid-level leaders at EPA will actually delete health risks from the health assessments.” 

“That’s a huge problem. And we expect that in the coming year a number of Inspector General reports will come out that will validate some of these concerns.”

“The problem is that once the EPA allows these chemicals onto the market, it creates a whole economic incentive to keep them on the market. Once these mistakes are made, we live with them for generations. There are a number of examples of toxic chemicals now being used that were assessed incorrectly by the EPA.” 

“Look at the current fiasco around PFAS. It’s a class of chemicals that have a carbon fluorine bond. The EPA has known of the dangers of these chemicals for over a decade. And it will take a generation to get these toxic chemicals out of our economic streams of commerce. And the industry will fight it tooth and nail and they seem to be quite successful.”

“When the EPA makes a mistake, we all pay for a long time.”

Whitehouse says that “this class of chemicals was discovered in the 1940s.” 

“They put a carbon and fluorine bond together and that created the strongest chemical bond known to humankind. And that led to Teflon – that is PFAS coating your pans and you get non-stick pans.”

“Industry scientists realized that they were dealing with a very toxic substance that could cause great harm to humans. But they kept that quiet and they kept it away from regulators. Then the scientists found that they could make thousands of different types of configurations of these PFAS chemicals. They could make plastics more durable. Many stain resistant textiles are now made with PFAS.” 

“In the 1990s, the EPA started seeing the studies on how dangerous these chemicals were. Only until recently, under pressure from lawsuits from groups like PEER, has the EPA started to do anything to regulate these chemicals.”

“Europe meanwhile is proposing to ban all but essential uses of PFAS because they know how toxic these chemicals are. EPA, it’s sad to say, is probably twenty or thirty years ago from doing that. And it’s because of the industry control over Congress and the EPA.”

Why would it be twenty to thirty years away? If there were the political will, it could be done quite quickly.

“There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t follow Europe’s lead. That would take about seven or eight years. But my assessment is based on the politics of the country. So many people in Congress are beholden to these industries that they will not allow the EPA to do what it needs to do. And they will not pass the legislation that needs to be passed.” 

“I hope I’m wrong. We are suing the agencies over PFAS and are chipping away at the problem. What may change with regards to PFAS is now we have state and local governments paying millions of dollars to clean up their water. I live in a small town – Poolesville, Maryland. We rely on a sole source aquifer.” 

“PEER tested our water and it had high levels of PFAS. And then the town tested and it came back again with high levels of PFAS. And now the town needs to install a filtration system which is very expensive. In the case of PFAS, change may come from the bottom up. We are seeing local governments dealing with drinking water pollution and they are not happy with having to pay a lot of money to clean it up. And a lot of these towns are starting to sue the chemical companies.” 

“That is a ray of hope, but it is unfortunate that it takes cancerous agents and toxic agents in your water to bring about that kind of change when they have known for thirty years that this would be a problem.”

The administration changed from Trump to Biden, but the policy did not change?

“The EPA made small incremental changes in their toxic chemicals and pesticide program, but no fundamental changes.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Timothy Whitehouse, see 37 Corporate Crime Reporter 48(10), December 11, 2023, print edition only.]

Copyright © Corporate Crime Reporter
In Print 48 Weeks A Year

Built on Notes Blog Core
Powered by WordPress