Sen. Whitehouse Compares EPA Firing To U.S. Attorney Scandal: 'Déjà Vu All Over Again'

Posted by Wonk Room Fri, 02 May 2008 17:41:00 GMT

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency dismissed Midwest regional administrator Mary Gade, one of ten such officials appointed directly by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. Gade, a lifelong Republican and a prominent supporter of George W. Bush’s pursuit of the presidency in 2000, told the Chicago Tribune, “There’s no question this is about Dow.” Gade was locked in a battle with Dow Chemical over the cleanup of dioxin poisoning from its world headquarters in Michigan. As former EPA official Robert Sussman writes in the Wonk Room, “To remove a Regional Administrator because of a disagreement over policy at an individual site is unheard of.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) just spoke on the Senate floor about Gade’s firing. Whitehouse compared her firing with the U.S. Attorney scandal that enveloped the Department of Justice and led to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s resignation:
We do not yet know all the details of Ms. Gade’s firing, or everything that may have gone on between her office and Dow Chemical. But from everything that we’ve heard and seen so far, it looks like déjà vu all over again. From an administration that values compliance with its political agenda more than it values the trust or the best interests of the American people. Last year we learned that this is an administration that wouldn’t hesitate to fire capable federal prosecutors when they wouldn’t toe an improper party line. Today it seems that the Bush Administration might have once again removed a highly qualified and well-regarded official whose only misstep was to disagree with the political bosses.

Watch it:

Sen. Whitehouse also announced that he is conducting an oversight hearing into the politicization of the EPA and the circumstances of Gade’s dismissal next Wednesday. The last time EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson testified before Sen. Whitehouse, he put in a shameful performance, leading Whitehouse to state:

In my short time in Washington, I didn’t think I would again encounter a witness as evasive and unresponsive as Alberto Gonzales was during our investigation of the U.S. Attorney scandal. Unfortunately, today EPA Administrator Johnson stooped to that low standard.
Sen. Whitehouse’s full remarks on politics at EPA, as prepared for delivery:
Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, for much of last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee was engaged in a troubling inquiry. We were trying to determine whether the Bush administration had fired several United States Attorneys for political reasons – because they were not “loyal Bushies.”

That inquiry continues. But over its course, the incompetence and misjudgments it uncovered cost a number of Justice Department officials their jobs – including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who made clear that he put loyalty to the President before the faithful exercise of his office. It also cost this proud Department the morale of its staff and the trust of the American people, who were left to wonder whether federal prosecutions in this country arose out of the pursuit of justice or the pursuit of political advantage.

This morning, we awoke to the news that the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator for the Midwest, Mary Gade, was forced to resign in the midst of a heated debate over dioxin contamination in waters near Michigan. According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, Ms. Gade invoked emergency powers last year to force Dow Chemical, headquartered in Michigan, to clean up several areas saturated with the toxic chemical, a dangerous carcinogen which was a byproduct of Agent Orange.

She later broke off negotiations with the company on a more comprehensive cleanup, citing concerns that Dow had been reluctant to take steps to protect health and wildlife. At that point, the Tribune’s report says, the company asked EPA officials in Washington to intervene, though Dow said yesterday it had nothing to do with Ms. Gade’s dismissal. The paper wrote Ms. Gade said that high-ranking EPA officials “repeatedly questioned her aggressive action against Dow.” It quoted Ms. Gade as saying: “There is no question this is about Dow.”

We do not yet know all the details of Ms. Gade’s firing, or everything that may have gone on between EPA and Dow Chemical. But from all we have heard and seen, Mary Gade’s story seems like déjà vu all over again from an administration that values compliance with a political agenda over the best interests of the American people.

Last year, we learned that this administration would not hesitate to fire federal prosecutors who didn’t toe the party line. Today, it seems that the Bush administration has once again to remove a highly-qualified and well-regarded official whose only misstep, it appears, was to disagree with her political bosses.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, the story of Mary Gade is not only a distressing signal that the Bush administration may again be making hiring and firing decisions based on political loyalty. This is also just the latest in a growing pile of evidence of a troubling and destructive force at work within our government, one with serious consequences for our environment, our natural resources, and our public health.

We’ve always known that the Bush Administration was no friend to our environment. Over and over again for seven long years, this administration has put forward, under false flags, policies that would do great harm to the environment. From a Clear Skies initiative that would increase air pollution, to a national energy policy written by oil industry lobbyists, the Bush approach to environmental protection has been Orwellian.

That pattern continues even to this day. Not long ago, President Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced what his administration characterized as a new strategy to address climate change. With Americans all over this country crying out for a bold, visionary plan to tackle the threat of global warming, a problem that threatens to engulf this nation and the entire world within generations if nothing is done, President Bush’s proposal was neither “new” nor a “strategy.”

Instead, the President announced what he called “a new national goal:” voluntary action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Let me say that again: voluntary action to reduce emissions by 2025.

Mr. President, there are a couple of problems with that approach. First: the President’s so-called strategy would allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise for another 17 years – even though overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that unless we take immediate action to cut global warming pollutants, we might be too late to prevent the most serious impacts of global climate change.

Second: President Bush offered no initiatives that might reduce emissions now or in the future, and made clear that on his watch, the United States Government will never require polluters to make such reductions. But as every American not working in the Bush administration understands, voluntary action, without strength of will or force of law, simply isn’t enough to tackle the magnitude of this problem.

And finally, even as the President announced this empty, so-called renewed commitment to fighting global warming, his administration reiterated that it will oppose a specific, detailed plan for addressing the climate change problem that the Senate will likely take up after the Memorial Day recess – the Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act.

This trifecta would merely be laughable, were the situation not so serious. And there is always the distasteful possibility, given this administration’s long and destructive history of disregard for environmental concerns, that this is a stalking horse, intended to prevent real progress on climate change; a way to leave this problem, like so many others, for the next President to solve.

Regrettably, the President’s announcement is also a stunning failure of leadership in a world community that is quickly growing unaccustomed to American leadership.

* * *

Mr. President, we’ve known for a long time that politics of special interests is at the bottom of this, and that the Bush White House has repeatedly interfered with the decision-making process at the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, in thrall to the checkbooks of the oil companies, the gas companies, the chemical companies, the timber companies, the coal companies, and the auto companies.

A couple of weeks ago, we saw new evidence of how deeply this corrosive political influence has seeped within EPA – the primary federal agency charged with protecting our environment and public health. A report issued on April 23 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, entitled “Interference at the EPA,” is a scathing indictment of the decision-making process at EPA from those who know it best: the agency’s career scientists. The report consisted largely of a survey of EPA scientists and found that 60 percent of those surveyed had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference during the past five years. The report documents, among many other things, that many EPA scientists have been directed to inappropriately exclude or alter information from EPA science documents, or have had their work edited in a manner that resulted in changes to their scientific findings. The survey also revealed that EPA scientists have often objected to, or resigned or removed themselves from, EPA projects because of pressure to change scientific findings. Mr. President, the conclusion could not be clearer: EPA is an agency in crisis.

Once upon a time, anyone working at EPA could be proud of their agency’s reputation as the international gold standard in the area of environmental protection. Indeed, for most of its 40-year history, all Americans could place their trust EPA’s independent, science-based leadership in safeguarding our natural resources and our public health. In a 1970 press release setting forth the agency’s mission, its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, stated EPA’s role unequivocally. I quote:

“EPA is an independent agency. It has no obligation to promote agriculture or commerce; only the critical obligation to protect and enhance the environment.”

Administrator Ruckelshaus was a Republican, appointed by President Nixon. Yet both he and the President who appointed him intended EPA to be immune from political pressure, to be guided by the twin lodestars of law and science in discharging that “critical obligation to protect and enhance the environment.”

However, in recent years and especially during the tenure of Administrator Johnson, we have seen EPA’s leadership, in cahoots with its White House allies, despoil these basic principles of independence and scientific integrity. Here are only a few examples from the long bill of particulars that indicts the leadership of this once-vaunted agency:

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has falsified data and fabricated results of studies regarding the safety of the air around the site of the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11th.

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has selectively edited government reports, including the EPA’s 2003 Report on the Environment, to support uncertainty in climate change science, placing the imprimatur of the government of the United States of America on fringe views soundly rejected by essentially the entire world scientific community.

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has routinely tampered with regulatory and scientific processes to achieve results sought by industry, at the expense of our public health and environment. For example, in 2004, EPA allowed North Dakota to alter the way it measured air quality, to bring Theodore Roosevelt National Park into compliance with air quality standards without actually reducing pollution.

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has hidden, suppressed, and delayed the release of scientific findings in order to affect the impacts of EPA decisions, as in the case of a 2002 report on the effects of mercury on children’s health that EPA delayed for nine months and released only after it was leaked to the media.

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has disregarded legally mandated scientific and administrative procedures, as in the case of the agency’s failure to abide by the Supreme Court’s recent decision on regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has stacked the EPA’s leadership and its advisory committees with industry allies, removing the respected scientists who argued for stronger public protections. A prime example of this is the removal, at the request of the industry lobbying group the American Chemistry Council, of toxicologist Deborah Rice from an EPA toxics advisory committee. Dr. Rice had argued for more stringent EPA standards for regulating certain chemicals used in commercially available plastics products. Not only was Dr. Rice removed the panel in a particularly Orwellian maneuver, but the fact that Dr. Rice had ever been on the panel was stricken from the panel’s records.

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has ignored the recommendations of career staff and scientists when they collided with White House political imperatives, as in the case of the agency’s decision on the so-called California wavier.

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has reduced enforcement of environmental regulations by opening fewer criminal investigations and filing fewer lawsuits against corporate polluters.

The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has not only failed to protect, but sought reprisals against, agency employees who pointed out problems, reported legal violations, and attempted to correct factual misrepresentations made by their superiors. Amazingly, the EPA’s office of general counsel has invoked the doctrine of sovereign immunity against whistleblowers suing the agency because of actions taken by the agency in reprisal for whistleblowing activity.

And the George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has had its lawyering literally mocked by U.S. appellate courts—which in one case, condemned EPA’s defense of its regulation as possible “only in a Humpty-Dumpty world,” and in another case, accused the agency of “deploying the logic of the Queen of Hearts” from Alice in Wonderland in its interpretation of the law.

It makes one’s skin crawl to see the ways in which EPA’s leadership under the Bush Administration has put the interests of big business CEOs and lobbyists before the health and welfare of our environment and the American people.

The consequences of this are dire.

First, in a world that presents complex challenges to our public health, our environment, and our national security, the elevation of corporate interests over independent, science-based decision-making threatens America’s ability to respond effectively, and to provide the kind of leadership that the world expects and the American people deserve.

Second, the Administration’s conduct has demoralized EPA’s professional workforce – the scientists, lawyers, and regulatory experts to whom EPA owes its reputation as a champion of environmental protection and who, time and time again during this Administration, have seen their expert counsel set aside in favor of a partisan political agenda.

Third, President Bush and this Administration have compromised the faith of the American people in the integrity of their government. The President’s eagerness to do the bidding of the special interests and the Administrator’s willingness to kowtow to the White House, to the detriment of sound public policy, only confirm what too many in this country most fear: that the United States of America is no longer governed by and for the people. When policy is made for special interests and not for the public good, America is left weaker. No matter our partisan or ideological standings, I hope that no one in this room would want to do such a thing to this great country.

The Bush Administration has done lasting harm to our environment and the confidence of the American people. Next Wednesday, May 7th, at 9:30 a.m., I will join Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, for an oversight hearing to look into the many actions by this Bush Administration, and its EPA Administrator, which seem to be so badly at odds with the recommendations of the agency’s scientists and the best interests of the American people.

Chairman Boxer has been dogged in her pursuit of the truth behind the machinations of EPA’s leadership and the Bush White House, and her leadership will be critical as we try to get to the bottom of this. We plan to ask tough questions – and we expect honest answers – because the American people deserve an Environmental Protection Agency that lives up to its name.

OMB Uses Misleading Appeal to 'Deliberative Process Privilege' to Shield EPA Corruption

Posted by Wonk Room Wed, 30 Apr 2008 16:41:00 GMT

Not only is the corruption of the IRIS process a clear example of the Bush administration’s politicization of the EPA, it is also emblematic of its pursuit to raise the Executive Branch above the law.

The OMB’s Kevin Neyland argued vociferously that all “interagency deliberations” should be shielded from any scrutiny because “these documents are covered by the deliberative process privilege.” Neyland cited the Freedom of Information Act, NLRB vs. Sears, Roebuck & Co., and EPA vs. Mink, to conclude: “accordingly, protection of internal Executive Branch communications is not ‘inconsistent with the principle of sound science.’”

John B. Stephenson, the GAO’s director of natural resources and environmental issues, explained to the Washington Post that “transparency in the risk assessment process is the cornerstone of sound science.” In his report, Stephenson shot down the OMB’s defense in no uncertain terms:
Contrary to OMB’s assertion, the report specifically acknowledges that OMB considers the documents at issue to be protected from disclosure because of their deliberative nature. Moreover, OMB’s assertions concerning the deliberative process privilege are misleading and illogical. That is, OMB’s comments fail to note that the deliberative process privilege protects internal and interagency communications from judicially compelled disclosure, an issue irrelevant to our report. The privilege in no way prevents agencies from voluntarily disclosing such information. OMB is thus arguing that because the scientific comments at issue might generally be protected from discovery in civil litigation, refusal to disclose them voluntarily in this specific context is necessarily consistent with the principles of sound science. OMB provides no citation or other support for this conflation of judicial and scientific procedures.

Stephenson concludes, “OMB fails to explain why certain scientific views should be given added consideration and protected from the critical scientific scrutiny all other comments will receive simply because the reviewers providing the comments are federal employees.”

EPA Toxic Assessment Process Hobbled By Politicization And Secrecy

Posted by Wonk Room Wed, 30 Apr 2008 16:32:00 GMT

From the Wonk Room.

Yesterday, yet more information about the politicization of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to light as the result of a congressional investigation.

One of the responsibilities of the EPA is to protect Americans from exposure to toxic chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, and death when found in air, food, or water—such as Alar, chlordane, formaldehyde, and malathion. Since 1985 the EPA has placed its scientific risk assessments of such chemicals into a database called the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). In a contentious oversight hearing yesterday, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) made public a damning report that exposed how the “assessments are being undermined by secrecy and White House involvement.”

Before Stephen L. Johnson became administrator in 2005, the assessment process was a straightforward one run by the staff scientists of the EPA:
IRIS Procedure Before Stephen Johnson
IRIS procedure before 2004
Even so, the IRIS assessment program was slow and deliberative, with fewer than 15 full-time staff and under 10 assessments completed each year from 2000 to 2004. But in 2004, the process was changed to give the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) oversight of the program:
Current IRIS Procedure
IRIS procedure now
Although IRIS staff has quadrupled, productivity has collapsed. In fiscal 2006 and 2007, only two assessments were completed. The current process gives OMB control over IRIS assessments—the GAO found the OMB aborted five assessments in 2006 without explanation. Other federal agencies such as the Departments of Defense and Energy – who “are among the biggest contributors to toxic Superfund sites” – can interfere with the assessment in complete secrecy and add years of delay. On April 10, the EPA announced it would be further changing the process to institutionalize this complete takeover of scientific procedure:
Proposed IRIS Procedure
proposed IRIS procedure

In the words of Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group, “With these rules in place, it’s now official: The Bush White House is where all good public health protections go to die.”

EPA Toxic Chemical Policies

Posted by Brad Johnson Tue, 29 Apr 2008 14:00:00 GMT

  • James B. Gulliford, Assistant Administrator for Pesticides, Prevention, and Toxic Substances, United States Environmental Protection Agency
  • John B. Stephenson, Director, Natural Resources & Environment, U.S. Government and Accountability Office
Panel 2
  • Linda Giudice MD, PhD, Chair, Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences Department, University of California, San Francisco
  • Annette Gellert, Co-Founder and Chair, WELL Network
  • V.M. DeLisi, Fanwood Chemical, Inc., On behalf of the Synthetic Organic Chemicals Manufacturers Association
  • Laura Plunkett, Ph.D, Integrative Biostrategies, LLC
  • Lynn R. Goldman, MD, MPH, Chair, Interdepartmental Program in Applied Public Health, Environmental Health Sciences, Occupational and Environmental Health, Johns Hopkins University

E&E News:

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will meet tomorrow to discuss changes U.S. EPA made earlier this month to a key chemical database that would allow federal stakeholders, scientists and the public to weigh in early in the chemical risk assessment process.

The agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) provides access to research on chemicals found in the environment and their potential health effects. The risk assessments are used to create public health standards.

Under the new plan, EPA not only would invite other agencies to participate in the risk assessment process earlier but also would hold listening sessions to “allow for broader participation and engagement of interested parties,” according to the agency’s Research and Development Office. EPA also said the changes would result in an even more rigorous scientific peer review of IRIS assessments.

EPW Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the changes would be problematic. “They put politics before science by letting the White House and federal polluters derail EPA’s scientific assessment of toxic chemicals,” she said in a statement.

The Government Accountability Office is expected to issue a report that addresses Boxer’s concerns (Greenwire, April 11).

But some Republicans hope the hearing will give EPA a chance to promote the progress they have made on knowing and understanding the many chemicals that are out in the public sphere.

“The perception is that there are all of these chemicals in commercial use that EPA doesn’t know about,” said a Republican aide to the committee. “We think that’s erroneous. EPA has done a good job in recent years to try to increase what we know about the risks and toxicity [of chemicals]. It’s done a lot through voluntary steps, as well as some statutory ones, so I think it’s important that EPA talk about what they’ve been doing.”

10:00 Boxer The levels set in IRIS are used for most EPA regulatory programs and many state programs. The level set for arsenic in water and benzene in air went through IRIS. Early in the Bush administration, they acted to bring OMB in the process. Administrator Johnson made changing IRIS a high priority. Noone can explain to me where there is room for politics when you’re determining the health of the American people. Instead of having scientists at EPA deciding, we now have contractors effectively at the table. The entire process is kept secret. Here’s the irony: this administration has no end in sight for funding for the DoD. Isn’t it ironic that they are derailing the census of toxic chemicals. Similarly GAO found delays in risk assessments of formaldehyde. Scientists told our committee staff the process was delayed and people continued to be exposed.

Scientists reported, “De facto, EPA can’t go ahead without DoD and White House sign-off.”

The role of independent scientists at EPA must be restored.

10:10 Inhofe The witness invited runs the TSCA program, not the IRIS program. This GAO report was distributed on Friday. But it was completed on March 7, and then embargoed. My concern is that this hearing seems to be set up as a gotcha hearing. If the chairman were truly concerned about oversight, she would have shared the report with the minority and invited the right administrator. I believe there should be oversight of the ethanol program, which has raised food prices and caused riots. We should be concerned about this diversion from fuel to food.

10:13 Boxer We did tell your staff IRIS was an important part. We wanted Administrator Johnson. We think this is bigger than the IRIS program. I don’t mind that you are unhappy with me. What’s important is the bottom line. This is a scandal, frankly. Our families are being put at risk because politics has entered the process.

10:15 Inhofe I didn’t attack you on this. I think if we ask for an embargo we should share with each other.

10:15 Lautenberg How nice it is to start this spring day with a discussion not of the issues, but the process. While bisphenol-A is being developed, the EPA did nothing. They were silent. Out of the 80,000 chemicals used now, the EPA has only tested 200. It’s unacceptable. I refuse to let my grandchildren to become the new canaries in the coalmine. I will soon introduce a new version of the Kid Safe Chemical Act. This legislation would direct the EPA to make sure every chemical is safe before they end up in products. We do this with pesticides and pharmaceuticals already. It seems to make sense to do that with industrial chemicals as well.

10:21 Barrasso There is nothing we would not provide for our children. The question we should ask is, has the chemical industry helped improve the lives of our children? Is TSCA perfect? No. Could it be improved? Perhaps. Can it be better implemented? Certainly… PVC is used in prosthetics.

10:27 Boxer We’re talking about protective standards in our water and our air, not in prosthetics.

10:28 Barrasso The plastics that I’ve seen use chemicals.

Boxer We’re not talking about banning them, we’re talking about regulating them. Nothing that you said I object to. I’m saying we need to control them when scientists say they cause birth defects, when they cause cancer.

10:29 Whitehouse We have 80,000 chemicals to which American families are exposed, very few of which are tested.

10:31 Craig We have to talk about the role of chemicals in society. I’m going to err on the side of a doctor, not a politician—Barrasso. Our history is replete with the lack of knowledge and understanding with respect to the pollution of chemicals in our society. We’re talking about jobs.

10:36 Boxer It is not our job to keep the chemical industry at the table. It might be in another committee. When it comes to the profitability of the chemical industry, let them do that in the Commerce Committee. Dr. Barrasso is an orthopedic surgeon. On this panel we will have a pediatrician and an ob/gyn. The people who know about this are the experts. All this “confusion” about this hearing. The title of this hearing is “Oversight of EPA Toxic Chemical Policies.” Policies. We can talk about TSCA, we can talk about IRIS. I’m a little stunned that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle aren’t working with us. There’s a train leaving the station with Admin Johnson and Bush’s OMB on it trying to derail a very important program to keep our children safe.

10:39 Klobuchar I see our role as oversight of enforcement. I’m not just a mother but also a prosecutor. If you don’t have the enforcement angle, then we’re not doing our job, and Congress has to come in. I come at this not naively, but look at these toys. Our Consumer Product Safety Commission wasn’t looking at these toys. I was shocked to read the testimony of Ms. Gellert.

10:58 Boxer You’re getting tainted information, and that’s a problem.

11:00 Gulliford It’s important for us to prioritize chemicals.

Barrasso So the chemical industry doesn’t always agree with you.

Gulliford Our job is to take industry information.

Boxer The progress on lead was made under the old rules.

11:01 Whitehouse The carveout is for other federal agencies. Everyone else has to be public. You go to the White House and you can stick any comments in. Isn’t that a legitimate concern?

Gulliford I don’t believe that would happen.

Whitehouse What prevents the OMB from inserting political influence?

Gulliford You’re making the assumption OMB is political.

Whitehouse We generally try to prevent problems. If you leave a door open to that, it’s not adequate to say, “Well, we can’t prove it’s used for that.”

Gulliford The final products of the IRIS process are reviewed by third-parties. It’s a very transparent process.

11:06 Boxer I just want to say, you’re a very good witness. GAO said it’s a black box. It is secret. Sen. Whitehouse is just reiterating what we know is the truth.

11:07 Craig I’m trying to understand the process because it seems to be the process that is under attack, not the outcome. How many premanufacturing notices has the EPA received versus notices to commence?

11:25 Whitehouse There’s nothing in the process that would prevent or disclose whether a polluter made campaign contributions, was a Pioneer or whatever, and then went to the OMB to influence this process.

Stephenson That’s our fear.

Boxer The whole spirit of this country is openness and trusting citizens with information. Noone should be in that room in the early risk assessment process except the scientists and those concerned with public health. When I go home, I hear all the time about the fears of my constituents. I wish I could tell them we’ve done a stellar job. We haven’t. This process will institutionalize this nightmare. This is a secret process. It’s a nightmare.