A couple of months ago, a major article came out in a peer-reviewed journal that indicated the federal government’s health advisory for water contaminated with the toxic chemical PFOA was not nearly stringent enough.
The Gazette carried an article about the study, which was especially interesting because it was produced by scientists with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which is where Lisa P. Jackson worked before President Barack Obama picked her to be administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
It turns out that Jackson, while still running the New Jersey DEP, took a special interest in this study — to the point that she tried to block, or at least slow down, its publication in the publicly available scientific literature.
Back in October 2008, Jackson e-mailed Eileen Murphy, director of the N.J. DEP’s Division of Science, Research and Toxicology, saying:
I believe this paper should be pulled from submission for publication pending the results of a peer review by a panel of scientists. I believe the same requirement should be applied to all scientific papers by members of this department that are based on work they do for this department or data that they have access to because of their work for this department. I thought that was SOP now? If not, it should be.
Murphy wrote back:
The paper is currently undergoing peer review by a panel of experts as part of the acceptance process for the journal … for my own clarification — you are asking us to halt the external peer review being conducted by the journal and initiate our own DEP peer review of the paper?
Jackson apparently backed down. The paper, also written by scientists from Rutgers University, was submitted to the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology in late January, accepted for publication in April and first published online in early May. (The journal is subscription only, but an abstract is available for free here).
Now, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is going public with the e-mail exchange and alleging the incident was part of a series of changes by Jackson in New Jersey that “make it far more difficult for public agency environmental science to be published.” Among the other changes, Jackson:
— Abolished the DEP’s Division of Science, Research and Technology, thus “crippling the ability of the state to perform similar scientific studies in the future.” In the process, Murphy — the science division director who protested Jackson’s attempt to pull the study –Â was removed;
— Commissioned a body of outside scientists to review and approve all future DEP scientific work.
“The goal of industry is to decouple science from the regulatory process and they are succeeding both in the few states, such as New Jersey, which had scientific capabilities, and at EPA as well,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “As these new chemicals enter first our water supply and then our bodies, industry has been able to stall at every step, from risk assessment to regulation and enforcement.”
This new controversy hits the public as Jackson is promoting efforts under her watch at EPA to “bring science and transparency back to air quality standards decisions” and restore public involvement, transparency and science to the process of studying the health effects of chemicals. (also see Jackson’s Memo to EPA Employees about transparency) .
But also remember that some groups warned that Jackson reduced public participation and denied the release of information to the public. And, Jackson put in as one of her top aides a lawyer and lobbyist who previously worked for 3M Corp. on PFOA issues. [UPDATED, 10 P.M. TUESDAY — Some additional background and news: Last month, a Minnesota jury awarded no damages to three homeowners who claimed that their property had been devalued by water contamination from 3M Co. chemicals.]
I contacted a press aide for Jackson about this story, but have not yet gotten a response.
UPDATED, 3 P.M. WEDNESDAY, JULY 7 — JUST IN FROMÂ M. Allyn Brooks-LaSure , EPA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Public Affairs: “We will not comment.”
The story of Jackson’s involvement in the PFOA study broke yesterday on New Jersey Public Broadcasting, with this piece by Ed Rodgers, the environmental reporter there:
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The issue has global implications, and is also especially important to West Virginia, where DuPont for decades made PFOA (also known as C8) at its Washington Works plant south of Parkersburg.
Among other key findings,Â the New Jersey study backed up previous criticism that a last-minute Bush administration drinking water advisory for PFOA does not take into account possible long-term exposures from drinking contaminated water.
EPA had recommended that people reduce consumption of water that contains more than 0.4 parts per billion of PFOA. But New Jersey scientists concluded that a long-term exposure limit for PFOA would be about 0.04 parts per billion — 10 times more stringent than EPA recommended. And that level, 0.04 parts per billion, is in fact the guidance level set by New Jersey authorities for drinking water in their state.
The New Jersey paper also noted that EPA did not examine several animal studies that showed adverse health effects at lower levels, including effects on the liver, metabolism, and the uterus. “Evaluation of these studies could result in a short-term health-based concentration below 0.4 parts per billion,” the study concluded.
[Updated: An important point here is that Jackson’s e-mails were written in October 2008, before EPA issued its PFOA health advisory in January 2009. Apparently, the New Jersey science article had at the time of the e-mails been submitted for publication, but was sent back, re-written and resubmitted after the health advisory came out from EPA — and included the more interesting information about the problems with that health advisory number.]
How important are these numbers? Well, if you live near a DuPont plant where PFOA was made or used (and maybe near lots of other facilities that used these chemicals), they could end up being pretty important — especially if you’ve lived there a long time.
For example, in Parkersburg, EPA and DuPont have agreed that the chemical giant would provide replacement water supplies for anyone whose water contains more than 0.4 parts per billion of PFOA, based on the EPA health advisory number. But the city’s water system has recently shown levels of PFOA as high was 0.049 parts per billion and 0.07 parts per billion — that is, above the level recommended by New Jersey, but not above the level agreed to by EPA and DuPont for replacing water supplies.
UPDATED: The Environmental Working Group has criticized the EPA-DuPont deal, saying it does not “reflect the most recent science and falls far short of what is required to protect thousands of families who live near the DuPont facility.”
But, as Ed Rodgers of New Jersey Public Broadcasting has also pointed out, while DuPont is testing water wells around a New Jersey plant, state regulators there are allowing DuPont to go by the weaker EPA guideline — not New Jersey’s tougher standard (DuPont argues the New Jersey standard is overly stingent):
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Just last month, EPA itself acknowledged that the health advisories it issued do not protect people over the long-term:
Those advisories were issued six months ago …