The radioactive history of Trump’s pick to advise him on environmental issues

Group urges Senate to reject "radioactive nominee."

A sign on a the front of a building warns residents to filter their water January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. CREDIT: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
A sign on a the front of a building warns residents to filter their water January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. CREDIT: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, vowed to “to promote clean air and clean water.”

Since assuming the presidency almost a year ago, though, Trump has offered no indication that he plans to keep that promise. Whether it’s his rollback of regulations that protect air and water or his nomination of anti-environment candidates to high-level environmental positions in the government, the president appears determined to send the nation back to the days of highly polluted rivers and uncontrollable levels of smog.

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Trump has nominated several radical figures to fill top slots in his government to carry out his anti-environment agenda. One of his most extreme nominees is Kathleen Hartnett White, whom Trump picked to fill a key White House post advising him on environmental policies. White is a researcher who has worked on the fringes of the scientific community after serving as chairwoman of the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) more than 10 years ago.

White failed in her attempt to get confirmed to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) post in 2017; earlier this week, Trump renominated her to the top environmental post. The CEQ coordinates federal environmental efforts, including overseeing the National Environmental Policy Act, and works closely with agencies and other White House offices on the development of environmental and energy policies and initiatives.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization, released a report on Thursday that concludes White should not be allowed to head the CEQ, based in large part on how she handled the regulation of radiation levels in water systems across Texas when she led the state’s environmental agency.

“Putting someone in charge of CEQ who deliberately falsified data to get around federal regulations is outrageous, and the fact that her deception left people at serious risk of cancer is even more alarming,” Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president of government affairs, said in a statement. “The Senate should reject this radioactive nominee.”

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At White’s confirmation hearing to head the CEQ, Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, inquired about whether she helped public water systems across Texas underreport the amount of radiation present in their drinking water. In response, White said, “I would never, ever tell staff to underreport health hazards.”

In a 2011 television interview, though, White said she placed “far more trust” in the work of the TCEQ than the radiation standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EWG notes in its report that the TCEQ has a reputation of setting polluter-friendly state standards and casually enforcing federal standards.

Federal drinking water standards are based on the cost and feasibility of removing contaminants, not scientific determinations of what is necessary to fully protect human health, according to the EWG. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is required to set standards for drinking water quality and oversee all states, localities, and water suppliers that implement the standards.

Controlling the level of radiation in drinking water is extremely important for ensuring public health: There is clear evidence that high doses of radiation cause cancer in various organs. The probability of developing cancer decreases with lower doses of radiation, but it does not go away. Radioactive elements enter groundwater from natural deposits in the earth’s crust, and the levels can be higher when uranium mining or oil and gas drilling unearth these elements from the rock and soil.

Source: Environmental Working Group
Source: Environmental Working Group

Drinking water for more than 170 million Americans contains radioactive elements at levels that may increase the risk of cancer, according to the EWG’s analysis of 2010 to 2015 test results from public water systems nationwide. The most widespread radioactive contaminants in tap water are two isotopes of radium known as radium-226 and radium-228.

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“With the re-nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to the White House Council of Environmental Quality, President Trump is failing these 170 million at-risk Americans who are drinking contaminated water,” Christy Goldfuss, who served as chair of the CEQ under President Barack Obama, said in a statement.

When White was tasked with addressing radiation in Texas’s drinking water as a government official, “she regularly and deliberately under-reported the amount of radiation in drinking water, keeping families in the dark about their health and safety,” said Goldfuss, who is now vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within the Center for American Progress.)

“Putting her in charge of the Council of Environmental Quality could do untold damage to even more Americans. With today’s data revealed [by the EWG], it is even more vital that our leaders and representatives prioritize clean and safe drinking water for all,” Goldfuss said.

White had not responded to a request for comment at the time this article was published.

The last time the federal government took measures to reduce radioactivity in drinking water was in 2000, when, under a court-imposed deadline, the EPA published a rule that established a drinking water standard for uranium. The rule also required 795 water systems, most of them dependent on groundwater, to implement radiation treatment technology.

California is home to the most residents affected by radiation in drinking water, according to the report. Almost 800 systems serving more than 25 million people — about 64 percent of California’s population — reported detectable levels of radium-226 and radium-228 combined, according to the report. Texas has the most widespread contamination. More than 3,500 utilities serving more than 22 million people — about 80 percent of the state’s population — reported detectable levels of radium-226 and radium-228 combined.

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Last summer, the EWG released a tap water database that lets people see what contaminants are in their drinking water and how the quality of their water compares to other communities. “It’s a public empowerment tool. We believe people have the right to know what’s in their drinking water,” Bill Walker, vice president and editor-in-chief of the EWG, told ThinkProgress.

The group recommends that residents place filters on their water taps to protect them from radiation and other contaminants. “We think that’s a sad commentary that in the United States in 2018 that you can’t just go to your tap, turn it on, and be absolutely sure that your water is completely safe,” said Walker, a co-author of the new report. “The risk is particularly acute for pregnant women and their fetuses.”

In its report, titled “170 Million in U.S. Drink Radioactive Tap Water. Trump Nominee Faked Data to Hide Cancer Risk,” the EWG stresses that the EPA must tighten its legal limits for radioactive contaminants in drinking water and “require more extensive radiation testing and better disclosure — including making sure that rogue state regulators like Hartnett White don’t try to hide risks.”

Confirming a CEQ head who “deliberately falsified data to get around federal regulations is an egregious betrayal of public trust,” the EWG said. “The fact that her deception left people at a serious risk of cancer makes it even more alarming.”

For the past 10 years, White, who is not a scientist, has worked as a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a Koch Brothers-funded think tank. In her role at the TPPF, she has called carbon dioxide regulation “the killer” for the coal industry. In 2016, White said in an interview that she still sees a role for the EPA but doesn’t believe new environmental rules are necessary. “We don’t need regulation; we’re already doing a good job,” she said.

Union of Concerned Scientists Executive Director Kathleen Rest wrote in a blog post, updated on Monday, that the Trump administration may have assumed White’s nomination “would fly under the radar,” given how the CEQ is not as high-profile as the EPA.

“Along with other Trump appointees — like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — Harnett-White, if confirmed, seems destined to serve industry interests over the public interest. That should worry all of us,” Rest said.