Scott Pruitt embraces industry-backed chemical approval process under the guise of public safety

Environmental experts worry the new process will favor industry preference over public health.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump, Monday, June 12, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump, Monday, June 12, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Industry is once again cheering Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, this time for clearing a backlog of some 600 chemicals that had previously been waiting for approval. But environmental experts worry that Pruitt is using the chemical backlog as a smokescreen to streamline the agency’s chemical approval process at the behest of industry — and at the expense of public health and safety.

In an press release issued on Monday, the EPA announced that it had eliminated a backlog of nearly 600 chemicals; the substances had been waiting in the approval process since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which had not been updated since it was passed in 1976, was finally amended in 2016. The 2016 amendment, known as the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, mandated that the EPA take additional steps to ensure chemicals were safe for public use before approving them for market, including making an affirmative safety determination that the new chemical does not pose a threat to public health and the environment. (Before the amendment, the EPA could only deny approval if it found that the chemical posed a threat to public health and the environment; the agency didn’t actually have to prove that the chemical was safe.)

Because the amendment went into effect immediately after passing, the EPA — which normally has about 300 chemicals waiting for review and approval at any given time — suffered from a temporary backlog in the approval process, as new and pending chemicals had to go through more rigorous testing.

In announcing that the backlog had been cleared, however, Pruitt also announced that the EPA would be making some changes to the ways that the way that the EPA evaulates new chemicals — changes that experts worry undercuts the integrity of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act.

In the name and under the cover of this commitment that Pruitt made a few months ago to eliminate the backlog, he’s actually making wholesale changes that have nothing to do with the backlog, and that are going to weaken the new chemical review process,” Richard Denison, lead senior scientist with the
Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress. “The announcement yesterday is, in our view, contrary to what the law requires, and is really an effort to reset the clock back to a broken system that was widely agreed to be in need of a major overhaul.”

Under the EPA’s newly announced approval process for chemicals, the agency will only look at “intended uses” of a particular chemical, meaning the uses that the manufacturer identifies in its initial application to the agency. While the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act requires that the EPA also look at “reasonably foreseen uses” — the idea that a common industrial chemical could reasonably be used in domestic situations, for instance — Pruitt announced that the EPA would address foreseeable uses through a separate rule-making process, meaning a chemical could go to market even if the agency had concerns about uses other than the one initially highlighted by manufacturers.

Bifurcating the approval process into intended uses and reasonably foreseen uses, Denison worries, will allow chemical companies to resist or slow-walk EPA attempts to limit uses of chemicals that are already allowed on the market.

That disincentive the companies have is of concern, given the anti-regulatory climate that is going on and the many ways industry has found to slow down regulation,” he said.

The EPA’s changes to how it evaluates new chemicals comes just months after it announced changes to the ways it will evaluate existing chemicals, a decision that was heavily criticized by environmental groups and career scientists as an example of agency capture by industry. The changes, which also limit the scope of evaluation by the EPA, were spearheaded by EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Nancy Beck, who came to the agency from the American Chemistry Council, the leading lobbying group for the chemical industry.

Basically, this is a handout to the American Chemistry Council,” Katie Tracy, a policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform, told ThinkProgress of the agency’s new processes for existing chemicals.

Beck’s appointment, and the EPA’s new streamlined process for approving chemicals, add to the criticism Pruitt has faced for catering to industry preference over public health. In March, Pruitt decided not to ban a commonly-used pesticide known as chlorpyrifos, despite EPA scientists linking the pesticide to brain damage in children. Later, it was revealed that Pruitt met with the chief executive of Dow Chemical, the primary manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, a few weeks before making his decision.

In July, President Trump also announced his intention to nominate Michael Dourson to lead the EPA’s chemical and pesticides office. Dourson, who founded the nonprofit Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, has produced reports aimed at minimizing concerns about the safety of chemicals produced by companies like DuPont, Dow, and Boeing. As head of the EPA’s chemical and pesticides office, he would oversee the agency’s regulation of industrial chemicals and pesticides — the same companies that funded much of Dourson’s private-sector work.