Jan. 19, 2005 – The Bush administration conspired with defense contractors, documents show, to undermine scientific investigations into a toxic chemical that is especially dangerous to children and developing fetuses.
Experts say that a rocket fuel ingredient called perchlorate is a serious threat to the ecology and public health. Yet environmental groups contend that the White House and the Defense Department have engaged in a "brazen effort" to "manipulate" attempts by federal scientists to analyze and address the threat.
"It was a highly coordinated and very well-funded strategy to try to influence the outcome of the National Academy of Sciences panel," said Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, nonprofit research organization that conducts research on behalf of the federal government.
The NRDC charges that constant secret pressure and bullying backroom tactics from the top influenced an NAS report on the chemical at every step. Evidence the group obtained through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits shows efforts to stack the NAS committee, extensive lobbying from industry to downplay the dangers of industrial perchlorate use, and systematic involvement from White House officials who are not trained in the science at issue.
The documents paint a clear picture of Bush administration officials and industry lobbyists attempting to undermine the federal Environmental Protection Agency's tougher recommendations on perchlorate. Beyond actively trying to distort the science, another advocacy organization says, public relations spin coming from the federal government appears to willfully distort even the more lenient NAS report's findings in favor of industrial interests.
A Scientific Consensus: Perchlorate's Dangers Are Real
The White House held a secret meeting with perchlorate- producing defense contractor Lockheed-Martin; and the Pentagon used "talking points" written by another corporation for lobbying purposes.
Perchlorate is uniformly acknowledged to harm the human thyroid gland, which is essential for brain and organ development. Over decades, Pentagon contractors have used the chemical to build rockets and create fuel, resulting in water and soil contamination that affects tens of millions of Americans. NRDC says that water supplies for more than twenty million people have been deemed tainted with perchlorate. In fact, a study by the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization specializing in environmental and public health issues, found that the chemical impacted drinking water for seven million people in California alone.
The issue, scientists agree, is not whether prechlorate is dangerous, but at what levels the chemical poses real threats.
"Despite what some others have been saying, there is a scientific consensus that any perchlorate drinking water standard should be in the very low parts per billion," said Renee Sharp, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group. Sharp's organization contends that standard should be lower than one part per billion (ppb) to minimize health risks, but for decades, industry foot-dragging has hamstrung the push for safety.
The Pentagon has supported allowing 200 ppb of perchlorate in water, a stance Sharp calls "beyond ridiculous." Even a short-term exposure to the chemical for children or pregnant women can cause serious long-term harm.
The EPA snubbed the defense industry in January 2002 when its third draft statement on perchlorate suggested a restrictive standard, allowing no more than one part perchlorate in each billion parts of water. In response, defense lobbyists and the White House fought hard against the assessment, ultimately tasking the National Academy of Sciences in 2003 with developing new recommendations -- a move that shocked EPA staff, who say they were not informed beforehand.
Environmentalists believed at the time that the switchover was merely a stalling tactic designed to delay new regulations. What occurred, they now say, was much more sinister.
Stacking The Deck Against Public Health
NRDC representatives say that from the beginning, the White House and the Pentagon worked with corporations involved in the rocket industry to shape the national academy's findings. Sass, of the NRDC, said industry groups paid lobbyists and science-for-hire groups to bombard the committee with data and employed other manipulative strategies.
"The NAS committee heard 99.9 percent of its information and input from one side," Sass told The NewStandard. "Did it influence them? I don't know -- but I do know that Lockheed-Martin seems very happy with the results."
Though authorities either withheld or blanked out thousands of pages among documents requested by NRDC in its FOIA petition, some crucial points slipped through.
They show that at every step in the process, Defense Department officials actively attempted to limit the scope of the National Academy's inquiry, objecting even to the panel's initial work statement, according to one of the indexes of documents and internal emails withheld.
Another index reports that Defense Department officials helped decide who would sit on the NAS committee. Unsurprisingly, several chairs on the fifteen-member perchlorate panel were occupied by industry-friendly figures with financial ties to perchlorate producers. These included three corporate consultants: Charles Capen, who worked as a paid adviser on perchlorate to the aerospace industry; James Lamb of The Weinberg Group, whose self-described function is to protect its clients "when their products are at risk"; and Michael McClain, who reviewed perchlorate studies for private sector clients.
A fourth was Richard Bull, who was employed by aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin as an expert witness in perchlorate trials. Bull publicly claimed that perchlorate was not harmful at low levels. He resigned from the committee late in the game, in June 2004.
Political officials from the White House with no scientific training -- including nearly a dozen from the Office of Management and Budget, whose responsibilities include revenue and regulation, not environmental science -- are noted as having reviewed and commented upon highly technical documents.
The Pentagon lobbied the federal government in conjunction with perchlorate manufacturers, and then worked to cover it up, according to indexed documents from both the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget. For example, the White House held a secret meeting with perchlorate-producing defense contractor Lockheed-Martin concerning the investigation; and Kerr-McGee, an energy corporation that was once the nation's largest perchlorate producer, developed a series of "talking points" for lobbying purposes -- documents the Defense Department refuses to release.
In one apparent instance of the success achieved by pro-industry lobbyists, the most crucial element of the EPA report's recommendations has vanished from the federal agency's website. It is as if the EPAâ€™s suggested standard of one part per billion never existed. But NRDC has preserved the original version; it is available on the advocacy group's own website and can be contrasted with the "cleansed" version here.
"This process has been bombarded with politics -- and it was supposed to be a hands-off process," said Sass. "I think the National Academies should protect the credibility and objectivity of their scientific committee by barring this type of coordinated barrage of information ... to me, this is akin to tampering with a jury."
Even Manipulated Science Supports Tough Regulations
Independent of whether the industry campaign skewed the NAS's findings, critics see other problems with the panelâ€™s report. The findings are based on a single two-week study of adults -- one that was not designed to assess health effects for those most vulnerable.
Significantly, contends Sharp of the Environmental Working Group, the National Academy's recommendations are not at all the victory for industry that some claim.
While the EPA report recommended a drinking water standard, the NAS report did not. Both came up with a "reference dose," considered a rough guideline for the total amount safe for daily consumption, but based their measurements on different studies, using different criteria to determine unhealthy affects of the chemical, and applying widely different margins of error.
Sharp says this makes the NAS's public relations spin -- which was kicked off by a press release that trumpets findings "more than 20 times" as lenient as the EPA's study -- a fundamentally misleading comparison of apples to oranges.
Though she suspects the National Academy's recommendations were likely subject to significant political pressure and are too weak as a result, Sharp points out that even the hand-picked, pro-industry panelâ€™s findings would not justify allowing more than 2.5 parts per billion of perchlorate into drinking water.
Sharp believes that the total amount of the chemical considered safe for daily consumption by the NAS "is not as low as it could or should be to be health protective." The charge of White House manipulation "may be true," she added, "and I would guess it probably is true -- but even if it is true, and you take the NAS results at face value, and you translate them into a drinking water standard, you would end up with a standard in the low parts-per-billion."
Here is why: The NASâ€™s reference dose is derived from a very small study of healthy adults, not those at greatest risk. And while the Academy did claim to adjust for consumption by the most sensitive populations -- in this case infants and developing fetuses -- Sharp and Sass content that the NAS did not take into account infants' smaller bodies and greater water consumption relative to adults. Additionally, explained Sass, the study on which the NAS based its findings was so limited that the Academy should have, but failed to dilute its recommendations even further.
Without a series of simple but critical mathematical adjustments, Sharp argues, the raw numbers from the National Academy have little practical meaning.
Sharp said that, with the adjustments recommended by the Environmental Working Group, following NAS's guidance would result in water quality standards more than less than three times more lenient than what the EPA report offered -- still more lax, but by a factor of about 2.5 rather than the 20-something implied by the NAS press release, according to Sharp.
This exaggerated discrepancy, in Sharpâ€™s words, led to "uncalled for" and utterly misleading media spin. NAS was "basically asking to be misinterpreted," Sharp said. "They emphasized the differences [between the two reports] when they could have emphasized the similarities. The media got it wrong because the NAS allowed them to."
The next day, some NAS scientists held a press conference to clarify what the report actually says. But "it was too little, too late," Sharp insisted, speculating that scientists may not have felt comfortable with claims contained in news accounts.
The National Academy of Sciences and the Office of Management and Budget did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
The perchlorate episode is the latest -- and, watchdog groups say, one of the most shocking -- in a series of examples where the Bush administration has undermined independent scientific inquiry. Prominent former EPA officials and thousands of scientists have all criticized the White House for political meddling in basic research.
More than 6,000 professionals, including Nobel Laureates, have signed on to a Union of Concerned Scientists letter alleging that the administration has a pattern of distorting and censoring important scientific work for partisan political gain. Indeed, hundreds of NAS members have also signed the letter, titled "Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making," which accuses the administration of "manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions."