Lawmakers call for probe after emails reveal Trump administration tried to block health study

EPA and White House officials had worried the toxic chemicals study would cause a "public relations nightmare."

A "Danger Mine Shaft" sign is located near the Berkeley Pit on July 6, 2017 in Butte, Montana. Formerly an open pit copper mine, today the Berkeley Pit is part of the largest Superfund site in the United States. CREDIT: Janie Osborne/Getty Images
A "Danger Mine Shaft" sign is located near the Berkeley Pit on July 6, 2017 in Butte, Montana. Formerly an open pit copper mine, today the Berkeley Pit is part of the largest Superfund site in the United States. CREDIT: Janie Osborne/Getty Images

Lawmakers called for a probe and the release of a controversial study on Monday after emails revealed that Trump administration officials attempted to block a public health study from being published over worries it would cause a “public relations nightmare” and reflect poorly on both the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency. The unreleased study relates to toxic chemicals contaminating water supplies near sites including chemical plants and military bases.

Emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that EPA and White House employees sought to bar the release of a toxic chemicals assessment from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Shortly after the emails were made public, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) called the revelations “outrageous” and an “unacceptable decision to conceal critical public health research.”

“That lobbyists, industry insiders, and political appointees could have played a role in the decision not to release this study is beyond the pale,” Shea-Porter said in a press release. “Congress must hold hearings and investigate how it is possible that the EPA, the White House, and HHS have, for months, possessed research that could have helped families understand the health impacts of their exposure to toxic chemicals, but instead, have failed to even tell anyone that this study exists at all.


Shea-Porter has asked the House Government Oversight Committee to open an investigation in addition to holding hearings on the issue. In addition, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) called the information “deeply troubling” and called for the study’s release. Another New Hampshire Democrat, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, similarly called the decision to withhold the study “unconscionable”.

The email exchanges, first reported Monday by Politico, indicate that concerns raised by a Defense contact prompted conversations between EPA and White House officials about the health study in question.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” read an email from an unidentified sender forwarded to James P. Herz, the Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy and Science at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

“The impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR [the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be,” continued the email, which Herz forwarded on January 30 to EPA Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves.

Greaves in turn queried Richard Yamada, an employee with the EPA’s Office of Research and Development with ties to conservative lawmakers, about the study. Yamada spoke about the findings with Nancy Beck, the deputy assistant administrator at the EPA chemicals office who has deep ties to chemical corporations. The officials spoke of coordinating interagency review and finding a “neutral arbiter” in the form of OMB.

Their conversations indicate that the unreleased study shows that chemicals harm human health at a level lower than previous numbers indicated by the EPA. The chemicals, referred to as PFOA and PFOS, are used in a number of products, including Teflon, which has been linked to chemical cancer. Companies have argued that their products carry only low levels of such chemicals and are safe for people, but experts worry even those levels offer too much exposure.


For the Defense Department, those chemicals pose an outsized liability. The military uses foam containing them in exercises, compromising neighboring water supplies in the process. While the HHS draft study would carry no regulatory weight, the emails sent by various Trump administration staffers indicate Defense officials worried it might be used as a factor in Superfund site cleanup requirements. That could make such processes significantly more intensive and expensive, not only for the military but also for chemical plants.

Pruitt has purportedly made addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances a goal for the EPA under his leadership. But the draft study remains unpublished as of May, months after the email exchanges.

Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, defended the agency’s handling of the issue to Politico, saying the “EPA is eager to participate in and, contribute to a coordinated approach so each federal stakeholder is fully informed on what the other stakeholders’ concerns, roles, and expertise can contribute and to ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and Congressional constituents and partners.”

Under Trump, funding meant to clean up toxic waste sites is set to shrink. The administration has proposed cutting the Superfund cleanup program from $1 billion to $762 million. A Florida study published two months ago in the Journal of Statistics and Public Policy found that state residents living in counties with Superfund sites were 6 percent more likely to receive cancer diagnoses.