The EPA’s Stalin era

"It's absolutely shocking what's going on," say insiders. Secretive changes have diluted science and jeopardized public health. Will Obama overcome Bush's toxic legacy?

Topics: Environment, Science, Health

This may sound like just another Erin Brockovich-style tear-jerker. Enter stage right: Poor people exposed to toxic chemicals who worry that the government is ignoring their plight.

But the story of the hundreds of sick people who live near the former Kelly Air Force Base illuminates an entirely new manner in which the Bush administration has diluted science and put public health at risk. This year, largely in obeisance to the Pentagon, the nation’s biggest polluter, the White House diminished a little-known but critical process at the Environmental Protection Agency for assessing toxic chemicals that impacts thousands of Americans.

As a coalition of more than 40 national and local environmental organizations put it in a letter to EPA administrators this past April: “EPA, under pressure from the Bush White House, has given the foxes the keys to the environmental protection henhouse.”

So meet lifelong San Antonio residents Robert and Lupe Alvarado. For decades, the Alvarados, whose modest home sits around two miles from Kelly, have lived with toxic chemicals underfoot. This is the poor part of town, adorned with chain-link fences and black metal bars concealing the windows. Many houses lack a proper foundation and rest on simple concrete slabs.

Beneath the Alvarados’ house and those of their neighbors are shallow pools of groundwater that are polluted with tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, a chemical associated with cancer, liver and kidney disease. Before the Kelly base closed in 2001, mechanics used PCE to degrease parts on airplanes and fighter jets. For decades, they chronically dumped the solvent into poorly sealed or unsealed waste pits on the base, where it seeped underground, forming a plume that sprawls over four square miles under 23,000 homes and businesses. Locals refer to the area as “the toxic triangle.”

On cool or rainy days, when the Alvarados close the windows and shut off the air conditioning, a sweet chemical smell floods the house. When they eat dinner during these times, says Robert, 66, it’s like tasting something acrid. “We drink bottled water but there’s nothing we can do about the air except go outside and wait,” says Lupe, 64.



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Robert, a handsome man with almond skin, limps across his cramped living room with a black metal cane. He shows me a letter that recently arrived from the local hospital, congratulating him; he’d qualified for a kidney transplant. A few years ago he suffered a brain aneurysm, causing him to become nearly blind. His wife and one of his daughters both have battled thyroid cancer. “We know at least 15 people on this street alone who have some sort of cancer,” says Robert, a former labor relations employee at Delta Air Lines. “We call ourselves the living dead.”

In the Alvarados’ front yard, a purple cross sticks out of a cluster of banana trees. The crosses, distributed by a local community group, punctuate front yards throughout the neighborhood. They mark homes where people are battling cancer or other illnesses, an estimated 25 percent of households, according to local activists.

Surveys conducted by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have found elevated levels of kidney, liver and cervical cancer, leukemia and low birth weights in the neighborhoods that surround Kelly Air Force Base. A survey by the University of Texas found that 91 percent of adults in the area experienced multiple illnesses, including chronic sinus infections, nausea, heart and lung disease. Based on these studies, the area qualifies as a cancer cluster (with a higher rate of terminal illness, per capita, than areas of a similar size), says Wilma Subra, a chemist and environmental health activist based in Louisiana, who has consulted with Kelly community activists.

Although it has conducted limited testing, the EPA acknowledges that it’s possible for PCE vapor to rise from groundwater into people’s living rooms and kitchens. Yet it says the Alvarados and their neighbors have nothing to fear. Based on EPA air quality tests inside five area homes, the nation’s environmental guardian claims that it’s safe for residents to live above the plume for the next 40 to 100 years, or the amount of time it will take for the chemicals to naturally dissipate.

The fact is, EPA scientists haven’t completed an updated scientific assessment of PCE, including its health risks, for a decade. Worse, a comprehensive review of the carcinogenic chemical may never be coming. Anti-regulatory crusaders inside the Bush White House have peopled the EPA with top officials apparently more concerned with limiting government spending than public health. According to critics within and outside the EPA, the agency has stifled independent research and compromised scientific assessments of all manner of toxins and carcinogens that Americans breathe, drink and touch.

“It feels like Stalin-era Russia, like the administration set themselves up to decide what’s allowable science and what isn’t,” says a high-ranking staff scientist at the EPA, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Until the recent economic crash, this has been such an anti-regulatory administration. One of the ways to undermine regulations is to undermine the science behind them. It’s absolutely shocking what’s going on.”

Public health officials say this attempt to derail the scientific evaluation of toxins is one of the most damning legacies of the Bush administration. In late September, the Government Accountability Office issued a scathing critique of the EPA’s new toxic-assessment procedures. It concluded that the secretive procedures compromise scientific credibility and sacrifice the public’s trust in government. Despite such hefty criticism, public officials fear that because the new procedures have been instituted at the EPA so far below the public radar, their harmful impact will survive long after Bush leaves office. It will take a bold and expedient move by Barack Obama or the next Congress to curtail the influence of the Pentagon and other government agencies on the EPA.

 

It sounds like just another mind-numbing acronym: IRIS. Although not widely known, the Integrated Risk Information System is a database that houses the scientific analyses of toxic chemicals. It’s the foundation for most environmental regulations in the U.S. and beyond. Created in 1985 to be the final word on how specific chemicals impact human health, IRIS assessments are subject to review by both EPA scientists and independent experts. EPA regional offices, states and governments worldwide use this data to set standards for drinking water, air emissions and cleanup of chemical spills by both industry and agencies such as the Department of Defense, the National Air and Space Administration and the Department of Energy.

At least that’s how the process used to work before Bush administration appointees arrived in Washington, determined to snap shut the government’s wallet. Chief among them was John Graham, appointed in 2001 as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a powerful but little-known division within the Office of Management and Budget, an agency that controls the White House purse strings.

Before arriving at OMB, Graham headed the industry-funded Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, a conservative think tank known for proposing legislative reforms to limit government. Upon arrival in Washington, Graham demanded that agencies make greater use of cost-benefit analyses in formulating regulations. In his first six months on the job, Graham rejected 17 proposed rules submitted to OMB for review, due to the overriding costs of such regulation to industry and the economy.

Graham’s anti-regulatory sentiment found an ally at the EPA. George Gray, a former director of the Harvard Center, became assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development, a position that gave him direct management power over the EPA’s chemical assessment program, in 2006. Inside the bags he packed for his new job was a staunch determination to expose uncertainty in scientific studies. At the top of his agenda, Gray told the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2006, was an overhaul of IRIS assessments.

Historically, EPA scientists would apply a single number to the toxicity of a compound. That number reflected how much exposure a person could take before getting sick. But, explained Gray, because the human population is so diverse, there’s always an inherent uncertainty of how one person may react to low levels of exposure versus his neighbor. “I think recognizing uncertainty is sort of a sign of this kind of humility,” Gray told the journal.

Instead, he added, the agency would categorize the toxicity of a compound in a range. “We are going to recognize that the levels of exposure that we are [expecting] in the environment are usually hundreds to thousands of times lower than what we know about now.”

This line of thinking is not humble but concerning, says Adam Finkel, a professor of public health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and an expert in the field of risk assessment. “The problem with creating a range is that you can home in on the middle of the range or the low end of the range — that’s been George’s hobbyhorse for a long time,” says Finkel. “But why would you want to be only in the middle range? The reason for the range is that people are diverse. Homing in on the middle only protects half the people and leaves the other half unprotected.”

Not incidentally, under Gray’s tenure at the EPA, the agency has lowered the economic value of human life by nearly $1 million, or 11 percent. A human life is now worth just under $7 million. Such calculations are critical when government determines whether a proposed regulation is financially cost-effective to enforce.

For the Pentagon, the arrival of Gray and Graham couldn’t have been better timed. Since the early 1990s, the EPA has been conducting a toxic assessment of perchlorate, a major component in rocket fuel, used by the military and its contractors in bases throughout the country.

The chemical is incredibly widespread. It shows up in the groundwater of 35 states from New England to California; it has contaminated 153 public water systems in 26 states. Between 17 million and 40 million Americans are exposed to perchlorate at a level many scientists consider unsafe. According to a 2006 CDC study, 36 percent of American women are iodine deficient, putting them at risk for perchlorate-related thyroid problems. Due in part to perchlorate-contaminated irrigation water, most Americans who eat lettuce in the winter ingest the chemical. It has also appeared in melons, spinach and milk, according to 2005 and 2006 studies by the Food and Drug Administration.

A 2002 IRIS assessment led the EPA to call for a safe exposure dose of one part per billion — roughly the equivalent of a drop of water in a home swimming pool. That finding was expected to propel a stringent cleanup policy, one that could cost the Department of Defense billions of dollars.

But when the Pentagon and OMB saw the IRIS assessment, they were furious, says Kevin Mayer, a California-based EPA Superfund manager, who had been involved with the perchlorate review. “The Defense Department was openly upset, not only with the conclusions the scientists at EPA had drawn, but with the external peer review,” says Mayer. “I don’t think the Defense Department was hiding any motives. Anyone can see they have a lot at stake. They’re already spending millions of dollars a year on Superfund sites in California, and groundwater is really hard to clean.”

Concurrently, a preliminary EPA review of trichloroethylene (TCE), used by the military to degrease jets and metal parts, found that the chemical was up to 40 times more likely to cause cancer than was previously believed. Military activities have contaminated some 1,400 sites nationwide with TCE. Again, the Pentagon was staring down a hefty price tag for cleanup.

 

Fortunately for the Pentagon, it had a sympathetic ear in Graham and Gray. In 2005, the EPA distributed a proposal to revise the chemical assessment process; officials at the Office of Management and Budget sat down with the IRIS blueprint and pulled out a red pen.

The plan that emerged calls for expanding the role of other federal agencies in determining which chemicals are assessed each year. It allows agencies like the Pentagon, Department of Energy and NASA to identify “mission critical” chemicals to the agency’s operations.

Significantly, the new process affords OMB more oversight and involvement in what critics say should be a purely scientific assessment. Now OMB and other non-health agencies have three additional opportunities to comment. Such comments are off-limits to public scrutiny and not available to congressional review unless subpoenaed. If OMB doesn’t agree with certain scientific findings, it can effectively block EPA from moving forward with the assessment.

Longtime EPA officials were astounded by OMB’s audacity. Implementing such a plan is “like industry selecting its own cleanup standards,” an EPA scientist told Inside OSHA in August 2005.

Regardless, this spring, EPA officials and OMB adopted the Pentagon’s suggestions for the new IRIS process. The new plan, says Gray, results in higher-quality risk assessments. This sets up a process that “allows others to bring in scientific information and expertise,” Gray writes in an e-mail. “We’ve heard the criticisms that this is somehow allowing a backdoor, but it should be noted that all draft IRIS assessments are peer reviewed by outside experts. If it doesn’t pass scientific muster, we won’t accept it, and all final decisions on IRIS content remain with EPA.”

Paul Yaroschak, an official with the Department of Defense’s Emerging Contaminants initiative, says it’s important for the Pentagon to be involved. “We wouldn’t be serving the public very well if we didn’t bring studies to bear on this,” he says. He and others within the Office of Management and Budget underscore that they are not interfering with the EPA’s assessment but providing valuable information.

“All we do is provide them with written comments and scientific studies,” says Yaroschak. “We have no influence on the decisions that the EPA makes. EPA makes the judgment, EPA controls the process.” Graham, now dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, says that participation by other federal agencies is crucial to ensuring that the IRIS process has “scientific quality and credibility.”

However, even after peer reviews, the OMB and other federal agencies have one last opportunity to review the document. If the agencies don’t like the scientific findings, they can convene with the EPA, again in private, and reject the findings. These secretive meetings undercut the scientific credibility of IRIS assessments, says Lynn Goldman, an EPA administrator under Clinton, who now teaches environmental health at Johns Hopkins University.

“The new process is an open invitation for interested parties to meddle with IRIS in secret,” Goldman told members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works last spring. “Their involvement in the IRIS interagency process gives the appearance — if not the reality — of providing a back door through which industry groups can exert pressure to modify EPA’s conclusions or to subject the process to endless delays.”

Such manipulation and delays aren’t a possibility, they’re already happening, says an EPA staff scientist who agreed to speak on a condition of anonymity. “OMB has created de facto vetoes all over the place,” the scientist says. “If we don’t make the changes they want, the assessment doesn’t go any further. They’re trying to take our assessments and change the science so that a chemical looks much less risky.”

The EPA scientist asserts that the OMB modifies language in EPA reports to put qualifiers on the science. “Every time there’s a dispute with OMB, the debate comes to the desk of George Gray, and he of course always agrees with OMB, so we end up doing a lot of things we feel are incorrect, but that George Gray directed us to do.”

Already, say critics, it’s possible to determine how the influence of the Pentagon and other agencies will play out. In the past two years, since Gray has been at the agency, the EPA has produced more than 40 chemical assessments. Yet only four evaluations met OMB approval and were finalized. The EPA, which should be completing 50 per year to stay current, faces a backlog of 70 chemical assessments in need of updating.

TCE, the solvent used to degrease airplanes, still lacks a finalized assessment, despite the conclusions of a 2006 National Academy of Sciences review of EPA’s assessment, which found a strong connection between the chemical and cancer, and urged the EPA to finalize the analysis so that comprehensive exposure standards could be complete.

In the case of perchlorate, after six years of political thrashing back and forth between the EPA and OMB, the environmental agency announced in early October that it wouldn’t regulate perchlorate in the drinking water. Instead, the agency issued a “health advisory,” which is non-mandatory, due to be finalized by Dec. 1. The advisory is 15 times less strict than the agency’s original proposal in 2002.

OMB heavily edited the perchlorate proposal, eliminated key passages and requested that the EPA use a computer modeling approach to calculate the chemicals risks, rather than the broad scientific data available, reported Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post. Among the studies deleted by OMB officials was one conducted by the CDC, which describes the impact of the chemical on infants, the most sensitive population.

“If you look at the body of literature [about perchlorate], it would lead to a different conclusion than EPA is making,” says Tom Zoeller, a University of Massachusetts endocrinologist, specializing in thyroid hormone and brain development. “They’re not using all of the information that they have available to them to derive a number. The effect of it is to set a standard that isn’t as strict.”

The Alvarados and their neighbors in San Antonio, who want to know whether the PCE in their groundwater is making them sick, must wait several years for an answer from the EPA. The IRIS database currently contains PCE data that’s 20 years old. Although the EPA completed an updated assessment three years ago that found that low doses could cause cancer, Gray directed his staff to reanalyze the cancer risk, using an unvetted risk analysis computer model, which staff scientists say would lead to a less-protective assessment. According to the GAO, since 2006, EPA staff have gone back and forth with Gray; the assessment remains unfinalized.

With a flick of a pen, Obama could reinstate the old IRIS process. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. His transition office didn’t return calls and e-mails asking if it would be likely to reverse the Bush administration changes to the IRIS process.

“If the Obama administration is serious about protecting poisoned communities, fixing the IRIS program is the place to start,” says Jennifer Sass, a toxicologist at Natural Resources Defense Council. “This should be the top priority at EPA. It’s really fundamental.”

Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee on Science and Technology, has taken matters into his own hands. In September, he introduced legislation that would make EPA solely responsible for the IRIS process. The agency would be barred from consulting with any agency, including OMB, that had a conflict of interest in the scientific review.

“This bill gets the process back on track and in the sole hands of EPA where it belongs, so scientists can make important decisions for public health and ultimately help save lives,” says Miller. “The current system is fundamentally broken and cried out for this reform.”

Yet because IRIS is so obscure, it’s doubtful there will be a national clamor demanding restoration of EPA control. And that makes it easy for politicians to maintain the status quo, says David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, and author of “Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.”

“Power usually wants to hold on to power,” says Michaels. “The Defense Department will fight like crazy to maintain their ability to influence EPA’s deliberations. I believe these changes were made to limit EPA’s independence long after the defense industry-friendly Bush administration leaves office.”

In the meantime, the Alvarados continue to sit in their living room, breathing contaminated air. “How many more people are going to die because they don’t want to release this information?” asks Lupe Alvarado, referring to the EPA. Several of her friends have died recently of cancer. She struggles to stop crying as she talks, but it’s a losing battle. The brown napkin she presses to her eyes darkens with tears. “We’re all casualties of war,” she says. “We’re dying out here, one by one.”


Thanks to David Armstrong, bureau chief of the National Security News Service in Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Ore.

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