In an effort to avoid what one Trump administration called a “public relations nightmare”, the Environmental Protection Agency and White House took measures earlier this year to block the release of a federal health study showing a widespread water contamination problem that spans the United States -- and poses a particular risk near military bases.
According to POLITICO, recently disclosed emails indicate the study – conducted by Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry – revealed that a particular class of toxic chemicals has contaminated drinking water supplies “near military bases, chemical plants and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia.”
The study would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe, according to the emails.
“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”
It has been more than three months since administration officials became aware of the study, and according to HHS, there is no scheduled date for publication.
The chemicals at issue in the HHS study have long been used in products like Teflon and firefighting foam, and are contaminating water systems around the country. Known as PFOA and PFOS, they have been linked with thyroid defects, problems in pregnancy and certain cancers, even at low levels of exposure.
The agency put out a voluntary health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in 2016, placing the dangerous exposure level at 70 parts per million.
But the updated study found that exposures at less than one-sixth that level could pose a danger to particularly susceptible individuals, such as infants and breastfeeding mothers.
The 3M Co. has already shelled out more than $1.5 billion to settle water contamination and personal injury lawsuits, but the Defense Department is likely to face the greatest costs related to cleanup.
[S]ome of the biggest liabilities reside with the Defense Department, which used foam containing the chemicals in exercises at bases across the country. In a March report to Congress, the Defense Department listed 126 facilities where tests of nearby water supplies showed the substances exceeded the current safety guidelines.
A government study concluding that the chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought could dramatically increase the cost of cleanups at sites like military bases and chemical manufacturing plants, and force neighboring communities to pour money into treating their drinking water supplies.
Yogin Kothari, a lobbyist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the emails are "extremely troubling because it appears as though the White House is trying to interfere in a science-based risk assessment."
Members of Congress and former EPA officials also expressed alarm that the White House should move to shelve the study’s findings:
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) called the delay "deeply troubling" on Monday, urging Pruitt and President Donald Trump "to immediately release this important study."
"Families who have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water have a right to know about any health impacts, and keeping such information from the public threatens the safety, health, and vitality of communities across our country," Hassan said, citing POLITICO's reporting of the issue.Details of the internal discussions emerged from EPA emails released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a fellow New Hampshire Democrat, called the delay "an egregious example of politics interfering with the public’s right to know. ... [I]t’s unconscionable that even the existence of this study has been withheld until now."
The emails portray a “brazenly political” response to the contamination crisis, said Judith Enck, a former EPA official who dealt with the same pollutants during the Obama administration — saying it goes far beyond a normal debate among scientists.
“Scientists always debate each other, but under the law, ATSDR is the agency that’s supposed to make health recommendations,” she said.