Toxic EPA Appointees Spell Conflict for Public Health Safeguards

President Trump's proposed budget cuts risk damaging the EPA's cleanup of the Gowanus Canal, a designated Superfund site in New York City, March 2017.

Since taking over as acting administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June 2018, Andrew Wheeler has followed in the footsteps of disgraced former Administrator Scott Pruitt—especially when it comes to prioritizing polluting industries over Americans’ health and well-being. Across the EPA, many former chemical industry insiders have been placed in charge of programs that are meant to protect American communities. Wheeler, for example, previously lobbied for chemical companies and is now directly involved in decisions about a massive Superfund site in New York and New Jersey for which two of his former clients are responsible.

Wheeler and his appointees have continually taken steps to benefit chemical companies at the expense of communities across the country. Notably, after meeting with a top Dow Chemical executive in June 2017, Pruitt refused to ban a pesticide that causes brain damage in children. In August 2018, after a federal court ordered the EPA to reinstate the ban, Wheeler’s EPA began considering an appeal based on attacking the science underlying the ban.

A Superfund program plagued with conflicts of interest

The EPA’s Superfund program, similar to the toxic waste sites it is charged with cleaning up, contains many traces of the chemical industry. In his short time as acting administrator, Wheeler has taken additional steps to integrate the chemical industry’s agenda into the programs that oversee it, including the Superfund program. On August 3, 2018, for example, Wheeler downgraded eight Superfund sites on the emphasis list that Pruitt created, which previously contained 22 sites. Three of the 8 sites that Wheeler removed list Dow Chemical as responsible for creating the toxic waste sites. Coincidentally or not, a former top Dow executive began leading the EPA’s Superfund office in July 2018.

Wheeler’s appointments make a mockery of ethics and conflict-of-interest rules and come with clear effects on public health and the environment. Having former corporate chemical lawyers as the EPA’s top two Superfund officials is not merely a paperwork violation—it will likely result in more chemicals in U.S. communities.

Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA’s Superfund program became one of the most controversial programs. Pruitt established a mysterious Superfund Task Force and chose his close personal friend and former banker Albert Kelly to lead it. Kelly was later banned from the banking industry for life and was forced to resign from the EPA after numerous ethical questions emerged, including his financial relationship with Pruitt and complete lack of experience in environmental regulation. Pruitt’s Task Force generated recommendations for the administrator’s emphasis list of sites within the Superfund’s National Priority List but provided no reasoning and no written support or documentation for why these sites were chosen—meaning that the public had no way of knowing if industry influence played a role in the decision-making. Later, Politico reported that conservative MSNBC host Hugh Hewitt met with and successfully lobbied Pruitt to include an Orange County site on the list. Just last week, the EPA Office of the Inspector General announced that it was launching an audit into Pruitt’s Superfund Task Force, “to determine whether the EPA followed applicable criteria, such as laws and rules” when it created the Task Force.

A chain of industry insiders in command

In the coming weeks, the Senate is expected to vote on the nomination of Peter Wright, a former chemical industry insider, to lead the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM). The office oversees the agency’s solid waste and emergency response programs, including all of the country’s more than 1,620 Superfund sites.

In March, President Trump tapped Wright to lead the OLEM. In his 19 years as a corporate lawyer for Dow Chemical, Wright served as both managing counsel for environmental health and safety and a direct adviser to Dow on its Superfund cleanups. After Wright was passed out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on a party-line vote earlier this summer, Wheeler allowed him to begin work at the EPA despite not yet being Senate-confirmed. However, due to Wright’s longstanding ties to Dow, which is responsible or partially responsible for 171 Superfund sites on the National Priority List, Wright was required to recuse himself from working on more than 14 percent of the nation’s most toxic sites.

If Wright is confirmed to lead the OLEM, then Steven Cook, former senior corporate counsel for global chemicals giant LyondellBasell Industries, will be his second in command. LyondellBasell is the largest licensor of polyethylene and polypropylene technologies—chemicals that make up the most common packaging plastics. Cook, like Wright, has already signed a recusal statement pledging that he will not engage in any matters involving LyondellBasell.

This situation presents a similar conflict of interest: LyondellBasell, a company with a bad track record when it comes to environmental compliance, is responsible for at least three dozen Superfund sites across the country. The company even disclosed in a report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that they likely had violated environmental laws pertaining the disposal of hazardous wastes that could involve monetary sanctions of more than $100,000.

While Wright has agreed to recuse himself from any work on sites relating to his former employer, the process for recusal requires that Cook screen sites and issues before they reach Wright. In effect, Wheeler has stacked the deck so that the onus for responsible oversight of toxic cleanup by corporations passes from one former chemical industry lawyer to another. With this toxic hierarchy, it is easy to see how the public’s best interest—to live in communities free of hazardous waste sites—could be sidelined in favor of the industries that created those sites.

Conclusion

As the chemical industry continues to benefit from its insider access to the agency that regulates it, public health will suffer. In theory, the EPA is the last line of defense against polluters for the entire nation. That two chemical industry lawyers could be in charge of the nation’s toxic cleanup program—which was created to hold companies responsible for their role in polluting communities—shows just how far the EPA has strayed from its role as a public health protector, particularly under Wheeler. Now, it is up to Congress to pay attention to who is overseeing the programs that safeguard American communities and to deeply consider their role in the nomination process.

Sally Hardin is a research analyst for the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to thank Alison Cassady, Claire Moser, and Tricia Woodcome for their contributions to this column.

Author’s note: To stand up for your health and well-being, educate yourself about Superfund sites in your congressional district here.