The Environmental Protection Agency will today hold a day-and-a-half-long summit about how to address a potentially harmful class of chemicals in the drinking water of millions of Americans. But environmental advocates question how serious the Trump administration is about tackling the nationwide problem.
As recently as January, EPA staff huddled with chemical industry representatives to discuss a widely used class of commercial chemicals one day after a White House official privately suggested to those officials that an upcoming study on the substances might be a “public relations nightmare.”
Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week disclosed the Jan. 31 meeting between the EPA and the American Chemistry Council, raising concerns about whether the chemical industry’s main lobbying group influenced the decision of Trump administration officials to delay publication of a study on polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances — better known as PFAS. But EPA chief Scott Pruitt said he does not have the authority to release the PFAS report, which was conducted by the Health and Human Services Department.
The EPA’s actions regarding PFASs have come under scrutiny from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle after recently released emails showed White House and EPA officials sought to stall the publication of an assessment of PFASs from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a HHS division.
Researchers have shown that long-term exposure to the class of chemicals — used for decades in the manufacture of nonstick pans, water-repellent clothes and firefighting foam — is linked to increased risks of kidney cancer, thyroid problems, high cholesterol and hormone disruption, among other issues.
But the yet-to-be-released study will show the chemicals endanger human health at levels far lower than what the EPA says is safe, according to emails released this month by the EPA through the Freedom of Information Act.
The EPA will try to correct course on Tuesday by hosting state, tribal, industry and nonprofit officials at agency headquarters for what it is billing as a “ first-of-its-kind” summit of more than 200 PFAS stakeholders.
In brief remarks at the beginning of the summit, Pruitt called the gathering a "historic day."
"Clearly, this is a national priority that we need to focus on as a country," he said.
Pruitt also noted that PFASs are used in countless products that make American lives easier, and have even saved lives. But he acknowledged that some of the same attributes that made the chemicals desirable, especially their durability, also had fueled concern about their prevalence in the drinking water for millions of Americans.
"That's the reason we're here today," Pruitt said, adding that the agency intends to "take action, not just raise awareness" in coming months.
Once the reporters invited to Pruitt’s speech left the event, government officials dug into details of the water contamination problem that has affected military bases and towns downstream from chemical plants nationwide.
Maureen Sullivan, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health, said that her department oversees 401 active or decommissioned sites where there are “known or suspected releases” of two PFASs, according to Erik Olson, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council who attended the summit.
A representative from Colorado noted that the EPA’s method for testing for the class of chemicals detects only 14 of them. The head of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, suggested that they develop a method for detecting all 3,500 PFASs allowed for commercial use in the United States, according to Olson.
“They’re only detecting the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” Olson told The Post.
In his remarks to reporters, Pruitt vowed that the EPA will soon take steps under the Safe Drinking Water Act to evaluate the need for a federal threshold, known as a "maximum contaminant level," of the chemicals in drinking water. Such a move, if completed, would go beyond the guidance on lifetime exposure to PFASs that the agency published during the Obama administration.
In addition, Pruitt said the EPA would develop groundwater cleanup recommendations for the substances and begin taking steps to put in place liability issues concerning the chemicals under the law that governs the federal Superfund program.
Only a portion of the summit, which starts Tuesday morning and will run until noon on Wednesday, will be open to the press and the public, sparking criticism from environmental watchdogs.
While some media outlets were invited to cover the opening hour of Tuesday's summit, other outlets such as the Associated Press and CNN were turned away at the door, according to posts on social media. The AP even reported that security guards grabbed one of its reporters "by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building" after she asked to speak with an agency public-affairs officer.
The @AP, @CNN and E&E all showed up to cover this @EPA meeting on widespread, dangerous contaminants in many drinking water systems around the country. We were all turned away at the door of the EPA building. https://t.co/j8JthyiM3k— Ellen Knickmeyer (@KnickmeyerEllen) May 22, 2018
After the uproar over the exclusion of certain news outlets, the EPA announced it will open the second portion of the panel to the press.
“Scott Pruitt could score points with the public by taking action in the interest of public health and release all data... and pressure other federal agencies, utilities and labs to do the same," said Dave Andrews, senior scientist at the nonprofit organization Environmental Working Group. "Goodness knows he could use some positive press."
And in their letter to Pruitt, Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats expressed a deep distrust of Pruitt's actions on PFAS that has come to characterize the frosty relationship between the EPA chief and congressional Democrats.
“We are deeply concerned that these actions appear to indicate that politics, and potentially industry interests, are being placed before public health,” four of the House panel’s Democrats, led by Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), wrote to Pruitt.
After the Democrats' letter was published, an EPA spokesman confirmed the January meeting with the ACC, which was titled “ACC Cross-Agency PFAS Effort” in the calendar of Richard Yamada, deputy assistant administrator in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD).
“The meeting was scheduled by Office of Water career staff to meet with the ACC FluoroCouncil to inform them about the Cross-Agency efforts to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS),” the EPA wrote in a statement. “Several ORD staff were invited to the meeting, and an invitation was also extended to Richard Yamada.”
When reached for comment, the ACC said the PFAS assessment being prepared by Toxic Substances and Disease Registry did not come up at the meeting.
“I can tell you that we did participate in the meeting,” ACC spokesman Jonathan Corley said. “It was specifically about EPA’s intra-agency effort to address PFAS. The ATSDR study did not come up in the meeting.”
In a Jan. 30 email, James Herz, a political appointee at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, told Pruitt’s aides that the forthcoming PFAS study was going to be a “potential public relations nightmare” for the EPA and other government agencies, including the Defense Department.
“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these new numbers is going to be huge,” Herz wrote in the email, released to the Union of Concerned Scientists through a FOIA request. “The impact to EPA and DoD is going [to] be extremely painful.”
Follow-up emails show that Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator at EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, suggested having the study go through an “interagency review” at the White House (such a process could slow down its release).
Before being hired by Pruitt, Beck was the ACC’s senior director at the regulatory science policy.
Beck is barred by EPA ethics officials from participating in any matter involving the ACC without the approval of the top agency lawyers. Corley said Beck “was not present at the meeting.”
During Pruitt’s testimony last week in front of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, the delayed study became a topic of concern for not just Democrats but also Republicans, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, where PFAS from a DuPont plant made its way into the Ohio River.
Pruitt told the committee he “was not aware that there had been some holding back of the report.”
Separately, the EPA chief noted in a May 21 letter to Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), obtained by The Washington Post, that the agency “does not have the authority to release this study.” Kildee's district is home not only to Flint, famous for its high levels of lead in its drinking water, but also to several sites of PFAS contamination, according to the Environmental Working Group.
"I share your concern for communities across the United States that continue to deal with these substances," Pruitt wrote to Kildee.
But that answer did not satisfy Kildee. “Under Scott Pruitt’s EPA, there’s lots of talk but little action," the congressman said in a statement. "Time and time again, Administrator Pruitt has claimed he is working to address harmful contaminants in drinking water like PFAS or lead, but his EPA continues to kick the can down the road on taking any real action to protect American families."
The nonstick chemicals are more prevalent in the nation’s drinking water than the public probably realizes. An analysis published Tuesday by the EWG shows that up to 110 million U.S. residents may be drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
Environmental officials from Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire and Michigan, as well as a representative from the ACC, will speak at the summit Tuesday.
But the Natural Resources Defense Council, the only nongovernmental group invited to speak, bemoaned the lack of leaders from affected communities or from firefighting groups at the event. “It makes you wonder whether they’re serious about doing something,” said Erik Olson, director of the NRDC’s health program. He added he plans to ask EPA and HHS officials about the "suppressed report" at the meeting.
The EPA said it will follow up Tuesday's meeting with another “community engagement event” because the first “quickly reached capacity.”
Chemical manufacturers say that alternatives to PFAS, which are characterized by strong bonds between carbon and fluorine atoms that give the chemicals durability, do not meet all the significant performance standardsin products such as stain-resistant clothing and aircraft-engine lubricants.
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.
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— Pruitt watch: Four Senate Democrats are calling on Pruitt to provide more information about the legal defense fund created to defray the cost of dealing with roughly a dozen federal probes surrounding him. In a letter, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and three other Democrats asked Pruitt to provide all documents regarding the formation of the defense fund within 10 days, per the Associated Press. The lawmakers also want communication between the defense fund and the agency’s ethics office. During a Senate hearing last week, Pruitt insisted to lawmakers that he was not directly involved with the defense fund, which was created on his behalf.
— "Some things are way, way, way more important than too much regulation:" Leaders in the city of West, Tex. have expressed frustration with the EPA’s decision not to adopt stricter safety measures for chemical facilities, five years after an explosion at the fertilizer plant there killed 15 people. “With all due respect to Scott Pruitt, he’s never lost 15 firefighter friends,” Tommy Muska, mayor of West, Tex., told the Austin American-Statesman. “I’m as pro-business as anyone, but some things are way, way, way more important than too much regulation, and that includes the safety of these chemical plants.” In the announcement late last week, Pruitt said the move would save taxpayers $88 million a year by reducing “unnecessary regulatory burdens.”
— Trump team gives solar farm go-ahead: The Interior Department announced last week it will approve a solar farm planned on public lands outside Joshua Tree National Park. The plan for the 3,100-acre, 500-megawatt power plant was first approved under the Obama administration, and “would be one of the country's largest solar projects, generating enough renewable energy to balance out the planet-warming emissions of 17,000 average Palm Springs homes,” the Desert Sun reports.
— This ship will not go gentle into that good night: Don Blankenship, the former coal executive who lost a bid for the Republican Senate nomination in West Virginia this month, now says that he plans to run as a third-party candidate. Blankenship said in a statement Monday that he has accepted the nomination from the Constitution Party, and reiterated his attacks against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Republican establishment. "This time we won't get surprised by the lying establishment," he said in the statement. "We were assured by White House political staff that they would not interfere in the primary election. Obviously, that turned out not to be true. Now that we know that the establishment will lie and resort to anything else necessary to defeat me, we are better prepared than before.”
The irony: The third-party run, which could split the Republican vote, may ultimately become a boon for one of Blankenship's avowed foes, Democratic incumbant Sen. Joe Manchin III. But first Blankenship "must convince state election officials that his campaign does not run afoul of a “sore loser” law barring candidates who lose in party primaries from later switching their party affiliation to get on the general election ballot, which could be a difficult challenge," The Post's Sean Sullivan reports.
— Climate change references restored: The National Park Service released a long-delayed report on climate risk to national parks, restoring references to climate change after a report that drafts of the study censored such mentions.
The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal first reported last month that the Park Service report deleted all mentions of human-driven climate change. But the report, quietly released Friday, assesses the impact of sea level change on 118 coastal parks and notes that “human activities continue to release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, causing the Earth’s atmosphere to warm.” It added: “Rising global temperatures cause ice located on land and in the sea to melt."
— Trump administration moves to lift restrictions on hunting Alaska's bears and wolves: NPS is planning to reverse Obama-era regulations on hunting bears and wolves in some public lands in Alaska. NPS issued a notice Monday of its intention to change the rules for sport hunting and trapping, the Associated Press reports, to “bring the federal rules in line with Alaska state law.” The proposed changes would allow hunters to hunt black bears with dogs, kill wolves and their pups in dens and also use boats to shoot swimming caribou, per the report.
— More hurricanes like Harvey: A new study has found future hurricanes will be slower and wetter as a result of a warming atmosphere, much like the catastrophic Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which lingered in Southwest Texas for almost a week. “The extra rain can be explained by basic atmospheric principles — warmer air can ‘hold’ more water vapor, which is converted to rain in storms,” The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. “But the storms of the future also moved more slowly, which would lead to more rainfall.” The study, from scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, comes just in time for a new hurricane season that begins oficially on June 1.
— What is laze? The lava from Hawaii’s Kilaueau volcano is pouring into the ocean and causing a chemical reaction. The lava haze, or "laze" is "created when molten rock hits the ocean,” the Associated Press reports, “and marks just the latest hazard from a volcano that has been generating earthquakes and spewing lava, sulfur dioxide and ash since it began erupting in Big Island backyards on May 3.” The haze is dangerous because the clouds contain hydrochloric acid, which is as corrosive as diluted battery acid, and can irritate skin, eyes and lead to breathing problems.
— Teenager playing with fireworks hit with $36 million penalty: The 15-year-old teen in Oregon who sparked a massive wildfire near one of the state's most scenic hiking trails must pay more than $36 million restitution, The Post's Marwa Eltagouri reports. “Hood River County Circuit Judge John A. Olson, in an opinion released Monday, acknowledged that the teen could not pay that full amount,” Eltagouri writes. “But the damage caused by the Sept. 2 fire was substantial: After the firework ignited dry bush, a blaze spread to more than 48,000 acres, wrecking many parts of the gorge’s recreation area and costing firefighters at least $20 million.”
— Pressure grows on oil companies: Investors at an annual meeting Tuesday are set to urge Royal Dutch Shell to take more action to help combat climate change. A statement from investors with nearly $8 trillion under management “stops short of throwing full support behind a shareholder resolution that would require the company to set targets aligned with international efforts to limit climate change, but signals strong support among investors for further measures,” the Wall Street Journal reports. The move is a signal of a shift in how investors are approaching the issue, calling on companies to be more transparent about risks associated with global warming, per WSJ.
— Oil firms get a hand from the federal government in climate court cases: The Trump administration is weighing in on the ongoing climate fight between cities and major oil companies. Lawyers from the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division filed a friend of the court brief last week supporting five major oil companies in their effort to get a pair of climate lawsuits in California dismissed, InsideClimate News reports. “The United States has strong economic and national security interests in promoting the development of fossil fuels, among other energy resources,” the brief reads. A U.S. district court judge is scheduled to hear arguments from the companies for dismissing the case on Thursday.
— Putting the "U" in SCOTUS: The Supreme Court said Monday it will take up the issue of whether Virginia has the right to ban a uranium mine, The Post’s Gregory S. Schneider reports. “The massive uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County, at the midpoint of the state’s border with North Carolina, was discovered decades ago, but in the 1980s the General Assembly prohibited mining because of concerns about radioactivity,” per Schneider. “Former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) announced shortly after being elected in 2013 that he would veto any legislation that sought to permit uranium mining. Since then, the company interested in opening a mine has given up on legislation and taken its case to the legal system.”
— "Big flaws:" Tesla, which has been battling with production challenges on its electric Model 3, is planning to produce two high-end versions of the car, the New York Times reports. Tesla’s chief executive noted the upscale version may be critical for profitability. The two new versions include an all-wheel-drive version beginning at $54,000, and a high-performance model at $78,000, per NYT.
Meanwhile, Consumer Reports declared this week that the Model 3 has “big flaws,” including its emergency brakes and “difficult-to-use controls.” “These problems keep the Model 3 from earning a Consumer Reporters recommendation,” the publication said, according to The Post’s Peter Holley.
With production, 1st you need achieve target rate & then smooth out flow to achieve target cost. Shipping min cost Model 3 right away wd cause Tesla to lose money & die. Need 3 to 6 months after 5k/wk to ship $35k Tesla & live.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2018
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on DOE Modernization.
- The House Appropriations holds a markup of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill for 2019.
- The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology and Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on empowering veterans through technology.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing.
- The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development holds a markup of the 2019 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill.
- A group of oil and natural gas trade associations, led by the American Petroleum Institute, hold a press conference call to highlight efforts the industry is making to prepare for the 2018 hurricane season.
- The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup on Wednesday.
- The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies holds a hearing on NASA 2019 budget on Wednesday.
- The Partnership for Advancing an Inclusive Rural Energy Economy holds a livecast on Wednesday.
- The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the American Biogas Council hold a briefing on Thursday.
- The Senate Appropriations Committee holds a markupof Energy and Water Development and Agriculture Appropriations Bills on Thursday.
- EIA holds its annual 2018 Energy Conference June 4-5.
— After heavy rains and flooding, Great Falls Park was temporarily closed, Kevin Ambrose reports for The Post: