Ep. 28: A Profound Shift in Environmental Protection

 The North Building of EPA Headquarters (left) and Mellon Auditorium (right) at sunset in Washington, D.C. Photo: Tim Evanson / flickr

The North Building of EPA Headquarters (left) and Mellon Auditorium (right) at sunset in Washington, D.C. Photo: Tim Evanson / flickr

In October, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, ordered scientists who receive EPA grants to either end those grants or resign from EPA scientific advisory boards. But what about industry-backed scientists? He said they can stay.

In this episode of Trump on Earth, we talk with Washington Post environmental reporter Brady Dennis, who covers the EPA under the Trump administration, about industry influence at the agency, the latest climate-denying nominees to top environmental posts, and the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany.

Pruitt’s reason for kicking off EPA-funded scientists from EPA committees is that they could be biased.

“This kind of turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head. If you're getting money from the EPA or from the federal government, which is traditionally no strings attached, it's not looking for a certain outcome,” said Dennis. “How is that more of a conflict of interest than a scientist or an expert who is paid by a company that has a real stake in how these regulations come out? I think we haven't heard the last of the arguments about that."

More industry-backed scientists, consultants and representatives of state agencies who have had a history of pushback against EPA regulations on scientific advisory committees, said Dennis, could likely result in regulations that are not as stringent or might not even be written.

“I think what you've seen under this administration and under Administrator Pruitt is a tendency to seize on industry viewpoints or industry-backed studies and data and hold that up as the reason for delaying action or rolling back regulation,” said Dennis.

In a high-profile case, Pruitt decided against banning the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which was proposed by the EPA under the Obama administration.

In July, Senator Tom Udall (D-AZ) introduced legislation to ban chlorpyrifos. “We have known for a long time that exposure can cause extreme nausea, vomiting, convulsions and respiratory paralysis,” Senator Udall said at a press conference announcing the legislation. “But the latest science shows something even more frightening - a strong connection between exposure, mental disability, ADHD and memory deficit in children. Scientists believe chlorpyrifos can damage children's developing brains even when they are exposed before birth.”

Dow Chemical, the producer of the pesticide, lobbied hard against the ban. In the end, Pruitt chose to lean towards uncertainty in the EPA studies and leave chlorpyrifos on the market.

“That may have been different than in the past where the default is to let's be sure of the safety of a product before we allow it to remain on the market,” said Dennis. “And you've seen this in different decisions that he's [Pruitt] made over time. One strand that we've written about recently, you can see running through many of these decisions, is to cite industry-funded, industry-backed science. And in making those decisions, [industry-backed science] is on an equal playing field as the agency's own scientists.”

As a reporter, Dennis finds the EPA to be very secretive under Pruitt.

“There is a lot of fear within the agency. So, it is hard to get people to talk with you, but also in some ways easier because these are obviously issues that bring up a lot of strong emotions,” said Dennis. “These are issues that folks at the EPA and other agencies have spent their entire careers working on so they feel very strongly about it.”

Mentioned in the episode:

This episode was hosted by Julie Grant. Follow her on Twitter. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalismprogram.

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