Newly-released emails between top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and chemical lobbyists show that the industry has kept a close relationship to the agency both before and after the departure of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, under whose tenure the agency relaxed chemical regulations.
According to conversations over the past two years, EPA officials have been actively meeting with members of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and maintaining warm connections with the industry trade association. And on at least one occasion, that coziness has extended to an ACC senior director reaching out to an EPA official to ask for help with finding their husband a “senior level position” with the agency.
Emails obtained by the Sierra Club through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and shared with ThinkProgress show Komal K. Jain, a senior director with ACC, wrote to Nancy Beck at the EPA on August 4, 2017. Prior to joining the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention in May 2017, Beck worked as a senior director at the ACC.
In the email — entitled “hiring?” — Jain asked her former colleague about potentially looking into an EPA position for her husband.
“I’d love to catch up whenever you can clear your calendar for lunch or a cocktail,” Jain wrote, noting that she heard Beck “may be hiring for several positions.”
“I’m not inquiring for myself, but for my husband Craig who has been in the environmental arena for a long time. In fact, he is a former EPA employee; he was with the Energy Star program for several years.”
“He recently left Toshiba where he ran its environmental affairs program for the Americas for 10+ years. He’s looking for senior level position in a policy/management role (not a scientist). Anything come to mind? I can shoot his CV over if there is a possibility.”
In response, Beck asked if he might be interested in a “political position” and invited Jain to send her husband’s resume. She did so on August 7 in an email that has been largely redacted.
No further communication is immediately available in the exchange. An EPA spokesperson told ThinkProgress that Jain’s husband was never considered for a position within the agency. Jain similarly responded to a request for comment and said that the emails were sent on “a pure personal matter” and that her husband did not speak or meet with Beck, nor did he interview with the agency.
Andrew Rosenberg, a director at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, told ThinkProgress that the email exchange between Beck and Jain made him “queasy.”
While Rosenberg said he was unsure if such an exchange constituted an ethics violation, he noted that it underscores the close relationship industry has enjoyed with the EPA under President Donald Trump.
“[It’s] something I’ve been concerned about with this administration overall,” Rosenberg said. He also referenced the role Beck has played since joining the administration, including pushing back on controversial efforts to restrict the use of scientific data in policymaking. In emails made public last summer, Beck opposed such efforts because she worried they would open the chemical industry up to scrutiny.
In an email to ThinkProgress, Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said he thought it was unlikely that Beck’s exchange with Jain posed an ethical concern.
“Political jobs are not merit-based,” he said. He did caveat, however, that Beck’s prior employment with the ACC could still pose a problem if the official pledged to recuse herself.
And in a June 9, 2017 statement shortly after joining the EPA, Beck did recuse herself from “participating personally and substantially in any particular matter” involving ACC for a year. That time has since passed, but her email exchange with Jain occurred only two months after that recusal.
More broadly, the exchange, along with other emails released to the Sierra Club, offers a window into the relationship between the EPA and the ACC. They show a steady stream of communications between top-level EPA officials and ACC in 2017 and 2018.
The New York Times reported in June 2018 that heavy lobbying by ACC has come in step with decisions by the Trump administration to scale back how the EPA decides health and safety risks associated with dangerous chemicals.
ACC’s clients include ExxonMobil Chemical and Chevron Phillips Chemical, in addition to Monsanto, and DuPont — which has been infamously involved in litigation over toxic man-made chemicals linked to cancer. At the EPA, Beck has worked to loosen regulations on such chemicals.
Meanwhile, the EPA has stalled a health review of hexavalent chromium, a toxic metal — another move that follows ACC’s efforts to influence the agency. ACC represents companies that either produce or utilize hexavalent chromium.
Beck’s relationship with staffers at her former place of employment also speaks to a larger trend within the Trump administration — that of a revolving door between industry and government officials responsible for regulating those industries.
In addition to Beck, former EPA public affairs official Liz Bowman — who departed the agency in May 2018 at the height of controversy surrounding Pruitt — previously served as a spokesperson for ACC before joining the EPA. She now works for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).
The ACC’s relationship with the EPA also extends to Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for the EPA’s air and radiation office, who has come under increased scrutiny in recent days for his industry ties.
As ThinkProgress reported last May, for instance, Wehrum, a former attorney and lobbyist, had lobbied the EPA to loosen air pollution rules prior to joining the EPA. Since joining the EPA, Wehrum has remained close to former clients. He has also engaged with the ACC, according to emails reviewed by ThinkProgress.
On Aug. 23, 2018, Wehrum met with five representatives from ACC for a little over an hour. They were joined by several representatives from Exponent, a controversial engineering and consulting firm that has historically been accused of bending science to meet the needs of clients, including supporting the tobacco industry’s downplaying of lung cancer risks.
Also present at the meeting were representatives from the company Balchem, which supplies the sterilizer industry, and the company Sterigenics, which markets itself as a “leading global provider of comprehensive sterilization solutions.” Earlier this month, lawmakers called for Sterigenics to be investigated over cases of cancer associated with leaking ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas, at a plant owned by the company.
The meeting also included EPA staffers Clint Woods, Alex Dominguez, Justin Schwab, and Richard Yamada; however it is unclear what was discussed.
Meanwhile, Wehrum has recently come under fire from Democrats and watchdog groups alike for his close relationships with other industries such as the utilities sector.
In a Feb. 21 letter, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joined House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Tom Carper (D-DE) in calling for an ethics investigation into Wehrum’s actions at the EPA.
First widely-reported by the Washington Post, the letter specifically takes aim at Wehrum’s involvement with regulatory action directly impacting a former client.
Under Pruitt, the EPA moved to roll back key mandates under the Clean Air Act. DTE Energy, a utility company and client of Wehrum’s former law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth (formerly known as Hunton & Williams), was in litigation in 2017 after the Obama-era EPA accused the company of failing to account for pollution from the expansion of a Michigan coal plant.
But in Dec. 2017, Pruitt signed a memo pledging not to second-guess company pollution projections. That decision came just in time, with DTE’s case set to appear before the Supreme Court. After the memo, the court declined to hear the case. Wehrum has acknowledged he reviewed the memo.
“We believe an OIG [Office of the Inspector General] investigation is warranted in this case,” wrote Carper, Whitehouse, and Pallone. “No other federal agency or component of the EPA will be able to fully ascertain whether, and if so, the degree to which, ethics violations have occurred.”
It is possible, the politicians argue, that Wehrum may have violated federal ethics rules, something that could complicate his tenure at the EPA. It is unclear if OIG has responded to the request.
This article has been updated to include Komal Jain’s comments.