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Defender of Chemical Companies Takes Charge of EPA Unit Overseeing Toxins

TexasGOPVote.com / Flickr (CC-BY)
By Lauren Coleman-Lochner / Bloomberg

By Lauren Coleman-Lochner / Bloomberg

TexasGOPVote.com / Flickr (CC-BY)

The Environmental Protection Agency declared 1-bromopropane dangerous enough to make it one of the first 10 chemicals it scrutinized under an updated federal toxins law.

Nancy Beck disagreed. The EPA’s finding, she told a Senate hearing in March, “is not consistent with the best available science.” At the time, she represented the American Chemistry Council, an industry group whose members include Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil.

Now Beck has moved to EPA, where she’ll be heading the unit overseeing the toxics law.

President Donald Trump has set up an adversarial dynamic between EPA staff and their new bosses. Trump’s administrator, Scott Pruitt, sued the agency over regulations when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. Now comes Beck, who spent five years at the ACC, where she became known as a critic of EPA risk assessments.

Beck’s task in government will be implementing the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, enacted last year after long and contentious negotiations between lawmakers, environmentalists and the industry, to regulate chemicals in commerce.

“It’s disappointing, after a bipartisan legislative process that tried to respect the interests of all the parties, that an ACC official with a long history of hostility and a long history of lobbying for the industry is now being put in a position of controlling the policies and decisions of the EPA office responsible for implementing the new law,” said Robert Sussman, a former EPA official who serves on the National Academy of Science’s environmental science and toxicology board.

The EPA declined to comment. Beck referred a request for comment to the agency, which declined to comment.

“Dr. Beck is a dedicated scientist who brings with her to the agency extensive expertise in chemical management policy,” said Scott Openshaw, a spokesman for the ACC.

In her Senate testimony, Beck questioned the research methods that showed 1-bromopropane, used in degreasers and adhesive sprays, puts users at risk for lung cancer and kidney and reproductive harm.

Beck has also criticized the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, a program that assesses the extent of a chemical’s toxicity. In her March testimony, she called the program outdated and reliant upon outmoded and overly conservative methods to weigh risk.

“EPA did not adequately consider study quality” or industry findings when making assessments, producing “overly conservative” estimates of cancer risk, she wrote. The White House’s U.S. government budget for fiscal year 2018 cuts EPA funding 31 percent.

“This is a shift in how we define acceptable public health risks in this country,” said Thomas Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and former EPA adviser.

Beck is a respected scientist who fulfilled her role as an advocate for the industry, Burke said. It “remains to be seen” whether she’ll take a different approach as a representative of an agency charged with protecting health and the environment.

Scott Faber, vice president of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group, called Beck’s appointment, in an administration that has pledged to drain Washington’s swamp, “the most brazen act of hypocrisy yet. There’s no one who has done more to delay and ultimately deny protection from chemicals linked to cancer than Nancy Beck. Trump’s EPA has completely abdicated its responsibility to keep us safe.”

Beck has worked in government before. She spent almost a decade, until 2012, at the Office of Management and Budget, where she advised the agency on chemical risks and policy.

A letter this month to Pruitt, signed by two dozen health and environmental groups, pointed to a report Beck wrote about risk assessment that was withdrawn after the National Academy of Sciences called it “fundamentally flawed.”

While she was at OMB, Beck’s actions were called into question as “potentially politicizing” the agency’s role to review EPA decisions on behalf of the White House and “second-guessing the professional judgment of career risk assessors,” Andy Igrejas, founder of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, said in the letter.

Beck was front and center in negotiations over revising the 40-year-old toxics regulations signed into law last year, said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her former group, the ACC, has pushed back on regulation in the face of what will always be a degree of uncertainty of how substances impact human health, he said.

“If you only restrict when you’re certain, you wouldn’t do anything,” Rosenberg said. “The position at EPA is to protect the public interest.”

Bloomberg’s Jennifer A. Dlouhy contributed.

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