From Watchdog to Lapdog: An Insider's History of the EPA

A former EPA analyst explains how the governmental body set up to protect the environment has been undermined by political pressure and industry.

The EPA came into being in December 1970. President Richard Nixon created this new agency because of the massive failure of the government to protect nature and humans from the unkind touch of toxic chemicals and radiation. But Nixon's first priority was fighting the war in Vietnam, not environmental protection.

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So the EPA was put together in a hurry from the failed pieces of larger government organizations, especially the pesticides office of the discredited U.S. Department of Agriculture, which made agribusiness and its lubricants, pesticides, possible.

Nevertheless, the EPA made a serious effort to fulfill its mission, protecting man and the environment from all "unreasonable" risks -- a tall order that lasted no more than four years.

The EPA warned the country it was a mistake to be addicted to pesticides. It banned DDT in 1972, the granddaddy of all agrotoxins, the insect poison that was the metaphor for silent spring: nearly wiping out the golden eagle and several other birds.

The EPA cited serious health effects from sprays and reported, in 1974, that weed killers would do much more than desiccate unwanted vegetation. They would also make the crops appetizing to insects while promoting larger insect populations.

What the EPA did not know was that protecting nature and public health from DDT had been a kiss of death. Chemical companies, agribusiness, and polluters took notice. They started lobbying the White House and Congress to teach the EPA who was the boss.

The White House and Congress unleashed the budget dogs of war, teaching the EPA a cost-benefit analysis it would never forget.

By the late 1970s, the EPA knew that some of the farmers' nerve-poison sprays were causing immediate and long-term neurological harm, decline of intellectual abilities and brain damage, especially to farmworkers. One did not have to have more than one accidental exposure to farm nerve toxins for suffering these unforgiving effects.

The EPA also had evidence that the dioxin-laced 2,4,5-T, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War, was causing miscarriages to women living in the woods of Alsea, Ore.

Those women sent a letter to the EPA describing their miscarriages; they complained that the U.S. Forest Service sprayed the woods next to their homes with 2,4,5-T. The EPA sent investigators to Alsea, where they found the feared dioxin in the creek near the neighborhood of the women. It was that discovery that forced the hand of EPA to ban 2,4,5-T.

The reaction of the industry and its White House friends to this news was fierce. They forced the EPA to "reorganize" out of existence its own science group responsible for its national research projects. The chief of the health effects branch responsible for the discovery of dioxin in Alsea had to report to a laboratory at the University of Miami, and a senior scientist was sent to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which promptly sent him to a project in Egypt.

The EPA also created a "farmworker protection" program to hide and diffuse its terrible secret that, in fact, farmworkers, and, by extension the rest of us, suffer from coming in touch with toxic sprays.

The "farmworker protection program" became a propaganda machine funding conferences, proposing unreliable "health standards" for farmworkers and issuing reports of cosmetic regulatory activities on the part of state governments, the EPA and the USDA.

As if these unsavory practices were not enough, the EPA was shaken to its core by another crisis. In 1976, a government pathologist caught the chemical and pharmaceutical industries using criminal schemes in order to deceive the government.

This scientist unraveled a massive fraud whereby the country's largest companies were "testing" their chemical products and drugs at the Industrial Bio-Test Laboratory near Chicago because they knew IBT cut corners and, otherwise, gave them results that would guarantee government approval of their pesticides and drugs.

Faced with the IBT fraud, the EPA ought to have banned all pesticides approved on the basis of faked studies. But the Carter administration decided in 1980 not to punish the chemical industry for its crimes but to put IBT out of business. Even that was too much for the Reagan men and women who took over the EPA in 1981.

Ronald Reagan put Anne Gorsuch, a right-wing lawyer from Colorado, in charge of dismantling the EPA. Gorsuch started her reign by firing many of the lawyers responsible for enforcing the law. Gorsuch's deputy, a Hispanic academic by the name of John Hernandez, became the censor of EPA science, sending confidential EPA reports on Dow Chemical's dioxin contamination of large swaths of Michigan to Dow Chemical officials for approval.

Another close associate of Gorsuch's, Rita Lavelle, who administered the country's toxic-waste kingdom, resolved the horror and politics of abandoned waste dumps over sumptuous lunches with polluters.

The Reagan administration disrupted the work EPA labs were doing on dioxin with a study that it hoped would buy the allegiance of Hispanics. The EPA spent $ 6 million, 50 man-years of lab work and seven years during which time its labs analyzed blood from the Hispanic population of America.

The results of the study were astonishing. More than 90 percent of the Hispanics had pentachlorophenol on their urine. Pentachlorophenol is an acutely toxic insecticide and fungicide and wood preservative. Some 50 to 80 percent of the Hispanics of San Antonio and Houston, Texas, had residues in their urine of the nerve poison Dursban or chlorpyrifos. About 27 percent of the rest of the Hispanics had Dursban in their urine.

Finally, Reagan's vice president, George Herbert Walker Bush, put the icing on the cake, making the EPA a servant of the polluters. He launched a corporate give-away that he called "regulatory relief." He demanded that the entire government reorganize to facilitate the business of America's business.

The EPA breathed a premature sigh of relief in the 1990s with Bill Clinton in the White House.

In an Orwellian spectacle, in 1996, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and Democratic managers at EPA celebrated the abolition of the Delaney Clause, which prohibited carcinogens in processed food.

When it comes to processed food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the king. But in the case of the Delaney Clause, the EPA took the leadership in dismantling it. It simply had become unbearable to know that each time EPA regulators approved the use of a cancer-causing chemical for food, they violated the Delaney Clause.

The EPA first funded the Academy of Sciences to study the "paradox" of allowing cancer-causing sprays on "raw agricultural commodities," the vegetables and fruits we eat, but forbidding cancer-causing residues on processed food. The report of the academy recommended doing away with the Delaney Clause on the speculative grounds that the number of people dying from eating sprayed food would be insignificant.

Just like the insults on our health from eating food laced with carcinogens and neurotoxins are additive, so are the political and corporate effects on the integrity of EPA. A child brought up eating America's conventional food is headed for trouble. In the same fashion, science, an objective way of making decisions, becomes diffuse and biased, the immediate victim of having polluters dictate policy and write the laws and regulations of EPA.

With polluters pulling the strings, science is no longer science at EPA, because both its data and rules are fixed to support a predetermined decision. Political EPA has also facilitated this transition with shutting down most of its laboratories and libraries, outsourcing the analysis of data coming from the "regulated" industries. The EPA's "scientists" cut-and-paste or paraphrase the industries' conclusions for their own.

By the time George W. Bush took over in 2001, there was no more than the skeleton of the EPA in place. The Bush people, motivated by the plunder of public wealth and by the apocalypse, dismissed nature outright. That's why Bush did nothing about global warming. Like James Watt, Reagan's secretary of the interior, Bush expected Jesus to come down.

This also explains why the Bush administration weakened the Endangered Species Act and the laws protecting nature and our health. The White House forbade the EPA from bringing into compliance with the law old coal-burning factories, resulting in about 40,000 American deaths every year from the toxic emissions of these power plants.

In addition, the Bush administration undermined the Montreal Protocol, a global treaty designed to protect the earth's ozone layer from chemicals like methyl bromide, which farmers use in the growing of produce like strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Methyl bromide was to be phased out by 2005, but the EPA and the USDA cooked the data for a "critical use" exemption of no less than 8,942 tons for 2005, more than double the amount granted to the 25 members of the European Union.

So did the EPA accomplish anything of value? We should be grateful to the EPA for its early work of banning DDT and several other poisons and cleaning the air and water from many hazards. The EPA also provides the model of what could still be done to improve the quality of life for both humans and animals.

President Barack Obama would do well to depoliticize the EPA. Ideally, Obama and Congress ought to invent an EPA modeled after the Supreme Court so that it is beyond the reach of the White House, politicians and industry.

This means the EPA administrator would be a person of great scientific knowledge and moral integrity. The president would nominate him or her to the Senate for confirmation and service for no less than 20 years. The budget for the EPA should also be set aside with no possibility the White House and Congress might interfere with the decisions of EPA.

Environmental protection is human protection, in addition to being a moral act. It is a last-ditch effort to save the earth from its human masters.

That's why a new EPA, carefully crafted to repair and uphold the integrity of threatened ecosystems while protecting us from our own technics and poisons, could be America's greatest contribution to its own well-being and survival and that of the planet.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, a former EPA analyst, is the author of This Land is Their Land and The Passion of the Greeks.