EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Discussions about how to address the HHS study on widespread contamination of water systems by the chemicals PFOA and PFOS involved Pruitt's chief of staff and other top aides, including a chemical industry official who now oversees EPA’s chemical safety office. Photo: AP Photo

By Annie Snider
14 May 2018

(Politico) – Scott Pruitt’s EPA and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis, after one Trump administration aide warned it would cause a "public relations nightmare," newly disclosed emails reveal.

The intervention early this year — not previously disclosed — came as HHS' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was preparing to publish its assessment of a class of toxic chemicals that has contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants, and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia.

The study would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe, according to the emails.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

More than three months later, the draft study remains unpublished, and the HHS unit says it has no scheduled date to release it for public comment. Critics say the delay shows the Trump administration is placing politics ahead of an urgent public health concern — something they had feared would happen after agency leaders like Pruitt started placing industry advocates in charge of issues like chemical safety.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) called the delay "deeply troubling" on Monday, urging Pruitt and President Donald Trump "to immediately release this important study."

"Families who have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water have a right to know about any health impacts, and keeping such information from the public threatens the safety, health, and vitality of communities across our country," Hassan said, citing POLITICO's reporting of the issue.Details of the internal discussions emerged from EPA emails released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a fellow New Hampshire Democrat, called the delay "an egregious example of politics interfering with the public’s right to know. ... [I]t’s unconscionable that even the existence of this study has been withheld until now."

The emails portray a “brazenly political” response to the contamination crisis, said Judith Enck, a former EPA official who dealt with the same pollutants during the Obama administration — saying it goes far beyond a normal debate among scientists.

“Scientists always debate each other, but under the law, ATSDR is the agency that’s supposed to make health recommendations,” she said.

The White House referred questions about the issue to HHS, which confirmed that the study has no scheduled release date. […]

Yogin Kothari, a lobbyist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, called Beck's January email "extremely troubling because it appears as though the White House is trying to interfere in a science-based risk assessment."

Environmentalists say such interference was routine during the Bush administration. [more]

White House, EPA headed off chemical pollution study

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