Foxes, Henhouses and our Health

Earlier this week I reviewed New York Times article on conflicts of interest among Trump political appointees that highlighted a new Labor Department Special Assistant, Geoffrey Burr. Burr is a former lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors, and his federal disclosure form notes that he lobbied DOL against the silica standard and the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces regulation that would have required federal contractors to disclose federal labor law violations. Under Mr. Obama’s ethics order, Mr. Burr would probably not have been able to join the Labor Department.

The Department of Labor, and OSHA, are somewhat fortunate so far that there is still no Secretary of Labor. Secretary of Labor nominee Alex Acosta is expected to be confirmed the first week of May, and after that we will start to see more political appointments at OSHA, and probably more appointments of industry foxes “guarding” the workers’ henhouse.

The Environmental Protection Agency has not been so lucky and the questionable appointments are coming more quickly. Richard Dennison, Lead Senior Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund writes this week about the alarming appointment of Dr. Nancy Beck who has just been appointed Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) at EPA. Beck is moving right over from head of Regulatory Science Policy at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the main trade association for the chemicals industry.

And this is not a good thing for the environment — or for workers:

In her new job, Dr. Beck is expected to play a key role in implementing the new reforms made to TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) , including in critical decisions that EPA will be making literally any day now, many of them driven by firm statutory deadlines.  These decisions will directly affect the financial interests of the companies represented by ACC.  And they will involve deciding whether or not the agency should take positions for which Dr. Beck has advocated on behalf of her former employer, as recently as last month.  Any reasonable person would see a conflict here, one sufficient to seriously question whose interests Dr. Beck will be representing in playing such a role in TSCA implementation.  But as the Times article indicates, this Administration appears to have little concern about the fox guarding the henhouse.

Nor does this situation bode well for the prospect of creating a credible federal system capable of restoring public and market confidence in the safety of chemicals – which was the key reason that such strong bipartisan and stakeholder support gelled behind the major reforms made to TSCA just last June.  Placing a key chemical industry player in a position where she will now have direct and major influence over the direction that reform will take raises serious new doubts about the industry’s claims that it supports providing EPA with stronger, independent authority and resources to vigorously establish the safety of chemicals in and entering commerce.

It’s also not good for workers, as last year’s modernization of TSCA also gives EPA the authority to set exposure levels for workers. OSHA, under its current law, faces an impossible task of updating hundreds of current chemical exposure limits, and adding thousands of new chemicals that have come into industrial use over the last 45 years.

Dennison concludes by asking question that we seem to be hearing for most Trump appointees (and the President himself):

All this leaves us with more questions than answers in Dr. Beck’s case.  For example:

– On what specific issues will she be working in her new position at EPA?

– What aspects of her work at EPA would constitute a conflict of interest or an appearance of a lack of impartiality?

– Will she recuse herself from any deliberations or decisions at EPA? If so, which ones?

Department of Labor Environmental Protection Agency

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