EPA Under Congressional Fire

Junk Science Rejected

By Michael J. Bennett, Author of “The Asbestos Racket”

From suanews, 1995

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), considered politically unassailable until recently, now finds itself in an all-encompassing vise, inexorably squeezed, not only by a hostile Congress, but its own science advisory board, former journalistic allies, defecting supporters and even the White House.

As EPA Administrator Carol Browner prepares herself for the ordeal of appropriations subcommittee hearings in late June — for the first time before a Congress openly hostile to the agency — she also has to worry about:

1. Junking Junk Science: The agency’s scientific advisory board has flatly rejected EPA’s claim that current levels of dioxin in the air and water pose significant risks to public health. The decision was the first in which the board decisively repudiated the central dogma of the environmental movement and EPA that there can be no safe level of exposure to a suspected carcinogen.

The decision was also notable because dioxin, notorious as a by-product of Agent Orange, a herbicide used to defoliate jungles in Vietnam, was once called “the most potent carcinogen known to man.” However, that characterization was based entirely on the results of early animal testing at extremely high levels.

Scientists, more recently, have determined the substance is also an inevitable by-product of incineration and papermaking as well as 85% of all synthetic chemical processes. People exposed as a result haven’t been found to suffer ill effects.

Allegations that dioxin was responsible for many of the physical and psychological problems in Vietnam veterans notably cancer were dismissed as unfounded by the federal judge in the case, Jack Weinstein, several years ago. At Weinstein’s urging, a relatively inexpensive settlement provided suing veterans with less than $10,000 each while ridding the defending companies, notably Dow Chemical, of a serious public relations problem.

The New York Times, which had helped publicize the allegations on its news pages, dismissed them on the editorial page at the time as “Orangemail.”

Subsequently, EPA, finding itself unable to prove “the most potent carcinogen known to man,” even caused cancer in man, spent four years trying to prove it posed threats to fetal growth and suppressed the functioning of hormonal and immune systems. The claims were examined by outside scientists retained by EPA in eight chapters of a 1,000-page study reviewed by the agency’s science advisory board at a May 15-16 meeting. The members praised those chapters as well documented, but savaged the ninth chapter, written by EPA officials, which characterized dioxin as causing a “spectrum” of health effects.

More than 100 years of biomedical research has demonstrated a threshold exists for any health effects associated with dioxin, Dr. Alan Poland of the University of Wisconsin noted. The only proven effect is chloracne, a severe, but neither debilitating nor fatal skin condition. Poland is recognized scientifically for having proven the existence of “dioxin receptors” in cells which initiate biochemical reactions when impregnated with dioxin.

About 10,000 such “receptor” molecules are present in each cell. But only four molecules of dioxin can be found in individual cells at background levels of exposure, Poland estimated far from a critical number. Dr. William McFarland, EPA’s chief risk assessor, argued that a measuring system, called toxicity equivalence factors, used by EPA had detected chemicals comparable to dioxin in the environment. This discovery presumably multiplies risks ten-fold.

Michael Gough of the Office of Technology Assessment questioned whether background exposure levels would have any adverse effects even if they were one hundred times higher. The “evidence and the history,” he said, “indicate that the estimates from the animal tests, all done at high doses … have not been validated by human experience. EPA’s use of human data appears to be very selective.”

His opinion was seconded by Dr. William Greenlee of Purdue University, prompting Dr. Morton Lippman of New York University, chairman of the board, to order EPA to rewrite the risk characterization chapter. At the same time, Lippman questioned the advisability of spending four years and more than $2 million on dioxin studies when “other, more serious environmental problems” exist, such as cigarette smoking, excessive exposure to sunlight, sexually transmitted diseases, i.e. AIDS and poor diet.

As a public health matter, his comments had been anticipated by a group of scientists who wrote Science in December to complain about the agency’s work until then: “We urge EPA to clearly distinguish regulatory policy from matters of scientific fact. Otherwise, the press and public will surely misinterpret the hypothetical risks presented in the reassessment as real.”

No news accounts were, in fact, published about the board’s decision, although editorials in The Washington Times and Detroit  News have been published urging Congress to use the decision to push ahead with pending risk-assessment legislation. An op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal is also being written by Kathryn Kelly.

Her work exposing the no-threshold theory as having originated as a bureaucratic rather than a scientific reaction to the 1959 cranberry scare was published in the last edition of Speak Up America. Acceptance of dioxin as a significant public health risk would enormously increase EPA’s power,EPA Watch, a biweekly newsletter, has pointed out.

Municipal and hospital incinerators as well as the paper and pulp industry are resisting EPA’s and the Clinton Administration’s efforts to “develop a national strategy for substituting, reducing or prohibiting the use of chlorine and chlorinated compounds.” Chlorine, used to whiten paper, releases trace elements of dioxin in waste water. EPA contends medical waste incinerators are responsible for 55 percent of known dioxin emissions. The American Hospital Association estimates the real figure is 1.5 percent. Concern over dioxin from municipal incinerators could override recently enacted unfunded mandates legislation.

2. Zeroing Out is In: The House of Representatives has an almost secret power almost secret because it is so rarely used — to refuse to provide funds for programs. It’s a power that can effectively put them out of business without going to the muss and fuss of repealing the legislation authorizing them.

“The laws would remain on the books, but there would be no money to carry them out,” said Rep. David McIntosh (R.-Ind.), an official of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) who tried unsuccessfully to rein in EPA under Presidents Reagan and Bush. McIntosh, chairman of the regulatory affairs subcommittee, has been feuding with Browner over what he alleges is illegal propagandizing by EPA, using taxpayer dollars, against the Republican majority’s “Contract with America.”

Now, rather than making public accusations, he has come up with a more effective way of cutting EPA’s power, taking away its money, not only for propagandizing but for regulatory programs Republicans don’t like. In the past, such power has only been used selectively. The Boland Amendment, for example, named for former Rep. Edward Boland (D.-MA), was used to curtail Reagan Administration anti-Communist intervention in Central America. McIntosh, by contrast, has come up with a sweeping list of “defunding” recommendations, many aimed directly at EPA.

His principal ally in this indirect and almost invisible way of gutting regulatory agencies is Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), Boland’s successor as chairman of the House subcommittee on independent agencies, which includes EPA. DeLay also heads a public-private regulatory relief project, “Operation Relief,” and, of course, all of Browner’s requests for funds have to pass the scrutiny of his subcommittee.

Among EPA’s authorized activities which the subcommittee could easily zero out are: new listings under the Endangered Species Act; water quality programs in eight Midwestern states; air pollution monitoring; wetlands regulation; the radon action program, etc. EPA won’t be singled out in the initiative. Also slated for elimination by exchequer are national maximum speed limits; the motorcycle helmet mandate; motor-voter registration; and corporate average fuel efficiency standards.

The budget committee has officially designated those programs as being “among the most expensive and onerous” and “appearing ripe for termination and reform.” The strategy is apparently veto-proof. All appropriations measures come to the President in one bill. He cannot selectively accept or reject line items in it.

Vetoing that bill means depriving all agencies of funds. “We have now seeded the process,” Rep. John Kasich (R.-Ohio), chairman of the budget committee has said, “We intend to enact as much of it as we can.” Only defections from their own ranks, which could happen in the Senate, could prevent the Republicans from carrying out a quiet counter-revolution against the regulatory state. “At least in the House, this is a foregone conclusion,” Gary Bass of OMB Watch, an advocacy group which helped frustrate McIntosh when he was at OMB, said. “It’s very much behind the scenes and it’s very effective.”

3.Environmental Crusading is Out: The ultimate accolade has been accorded Greg Easterbrook’s book,A Moment on Earth: The Coming Age of Environmentalism. Easterbrook, an “Establishment” writer for Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly has debunked the scientific basis for many of EPA’s programs. As a neo-liberal, he opposes the risk-assessment bill already passed by the GOP House and awaiting action in the Senate because it “would throw out programs that would work.”

Nevertheless, he does advocate abandonment of command-and-control regulation for “transfer of most programs to private market mechanisms.” That has made him a target of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the legal arm of the environmental movement, which has discovered after intensive scrutiny of the 800-plus-pages book, an ERROR!

It seems Easterbrook casually mentioned that the EDF, which was originally supported by the Ford Foundation and has financial support from many corporations, had accepted money from McDonald’s for helping change their packaging. Easterbrook has agreed to have an errata sheet inserted in future copies of the book. “But he thinks the real reason for EDF’s over-reaction was that his book criticizes environmental groups for perpetuating their doomsday rhetoric to benefit fund-raising and to sustain them as Beltway players,” according to The Wall Street Journal of May 26.

What really hurts is that both the old and new left basically agree with him. Losing Ground, a new book by Mark Dowie, former publisher of Mother Jones, the baby boomer’s Masses, argues environmental leaders have become Washington power brokers and bureaucrats, estranged from the grass roots and just plain out of ideas. The Nation, the country’s oldest liberal magazine conducted a study of environmental organizations and concluded: “The mainstream high brass is elitist, highly paid, detached from the people, indifferent to the working class and a firm ally of big government.”

As an apparent consequence, about 25% of the revenues raised go to fund-raising and another 20% to “membership development,” according to the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University. The bottom line was spelled out in a public opinion poll of the country’s charities done by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, EDF and the Friends of the Earth were cited as among the “least credible” of the 20 surveyed.

4. “Re-inventing” the Bully Pulpit: The Clinton Administration is considering  plans to turn over administration of hazardous waste Superfund sites to the states. The proposal has “drawn howls of protest from environmental groups,” The Wall Street Journal reported May 25. “The states are probably not going to run those sites very well,” Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council said, “Many of these sites were created when the states were in charge.”

Perhaps more significantly, the proposal would also cut $125 million from the $1.5 billion program, money used to research the alleged toxic effects of such sites. The cuts could eliminate the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, which bankrolled many of the studies in the 1970s and 80s proving the United States was afflicted with what became known as “carcinogens of the week.” Also eliminated would be the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which collects epidemiological data from Superfund sites.

5. What Goes Around Comes Around Corner:The president of a asbestos abatement company in Florida has been sentenced to 57 months in jail for defrauding a hotel which didn’t need to have asbestos removed. Daniel J. Fern drew the sentence for misinforming the Monte Carlo Oceanfront Hotel in Miami Beach and its insurer about the extent of asbestos abatement work needed. Fern, who didn’t have a valid license for asbestos removal, also encouraged a witness to give false testimony, according to EPA’s Criminal Investigations Unit.

EPA has also cited Shawano County, WI and two companies for improperly removing asbestos from the county jail. No penalties were imposed. EPA is protected from similar investigations under the “sovereign immunity” or “king can do no wrong” principle of law. EPA Administrator Browner, however, has no immunity from questions from Congressional subcommittees, and the agency has said it is asking the science advisory board for its advice on the health effects of asbestos. The board has complained it was never consulted by EPA in regulation of asbestos from 1980 to the present.§

Michael J. Bennett is the author of The Asbestos Racket: An Environmental Parable.
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