The Stakes Are High For The EPA’s Newly Appointed Chemical Review Director

OPPT has not been doing its job appropriately, and while the issue may have accelerated without a director, it is a long-term — and nonpartisan — problem.
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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

Denise Keehner is expected to start on Monday as the Environmental Protection Agency’s new director of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), Bloomberg Law reported last week. Keehner is a former EPA official currently employed by Maryland’s Department of the Environment.

This announcement is extremely welcome and long-overdue — OPPT has been without a director since May 2021, and Americans have suffered extensively because of it. 

The role of OPPT, and the New Chemicals and Existing Chemicals Divisions within, is to review chemicals, assess their risks and find ways to prevent and reduce both environmental pollution and human health impacts, including by managing which chemicals are allowed to go to the market. But if you live in the United States, odds are high that you are currently moving through everyday life with hundreds of industrial chemicals contaminating your blood and other organs. Not all of these chemicals are safe, and many of them should never have been allowed through the federal government’s chemical review process. 

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So, how did this happen?

OPPT has not been doing its job appropriately, and while the issue may have accelerated without a director, it is a long-term — and nonpartisan — problem. Between June 2016, when the first substantive reform to the Toxic Substances Control Act was signed into law, and April 2022, the new chemical approval rate was an unfathomable 100 percent. That is, for nearly six years, including the entirety of the Trump administration as well as parts of the Obama and Biden administrations, not a single new chemical which came before the EPA was deemed to present enough of an “unreasonable risk” to human health or the environment that it was prohibited from being commercializedcommercializing. The reality is that many of those chemicals were found by EPA’s own staffers to present serious risks, and were allowed to go to market regardless.

The Intercept began faithfully detailing the apocalyptic corruption occurring at the EPA in July of 2021, sharing whistleblower complaints from inside the EPA that illustrate a toxic (pun well-intended) culture within the chemicals offices. High-ranking officials within are manipulating, and even deleting, findings of risk to human health and the environment, according to the Intercept’s reporting. 

These whistleblowers tell of a haphazard OPPT run mostly by career officials (that is, officials not appointed under Biden) who appear to be captured by industry interests, or at the very least, are running the office in conflict with the interests of public health. 

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The allegations are, frankly, terrifying. Supervisors allegedly prevented staff from warning the public about a widely used carcinogen and, separately, forced staff to ignore reports that showed neurotoxicity, internal bleeding, abnormal fetal development and testicular, pancreatic, and kidney cancers from 40 currently circulating PFAS compounds (think: widely used and slow to break down chemicals). 

An employee of the New Chemicals Division wrote in an EPA-commissioned internal workplace survey, excerpts of which were recently published by The Intercept, that “[m]anagers from the Branch Chief level up to the [assistant administrator] level force technical experts to do unethical or illegal things and block scientific information from being released if it says something they don’t like.” Employees who push back against this culture have been removed from projects and iced out, punished both informally and in performance reviews, according to the Intercept’s report. 

All of this to say that Keehner’s new role is extremely high stakes. She’ll be coming into an environment where, for the past year, career officials — some of whom are implicated in the whistleblower complaints — have been steering the ship. Tala Henry — who as the OPPT’s deputy director of programs has been its de facto leader (and whose husband works as a private consultant for the chemical industry and may benefit from current industry-friendly regulatory practices) — and Iris Camacho, a branch chief responsible for chemical assessment in OPPT’s New Chemicals Division, both “played a significant role in pressuring scientists to downplay the risks posed by products the agency is assessing,” according to the whistleblower complaints obtained by The Intercept.  

Keehner will need to be unshakeable in her values. She’ll likely face pressure from career staffers, who have reportedly gotten used to running the office in an industry-friendly (and low-profile) fashion. She’ll undoubtedly face industry attacks, courtships and complaints as chemical companies try to secure her loyalty. And she may find it difficult to retain her integrity while her boss, Michal Freedhoff, has reportedly sided with the managers named in the whistleblower complaints. (Freedhoff is the director of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, OCSPP, of which Keehner’s office is a subdivision.) In a January meeting, Freedhoff told environmental advocates that if they publicly suggested individual EPA staff were influenced by chemical industry actors, they would no longer be invited to agency meetings.

Staff who have struggled to protect the public from toxic chemicals under the current leadership will likely be enthusiastic about Keehner’s arrival. According to the same Intercept reporting which published excerpts of an internal workplace survey, “several respondents blamed chemical companies for souring the environment within the agency and suggested that, ‘New managers need to be brought in for OPPT without ties to the industry.’”

Keehner, thankfully, does not have obvious loyalty to the industry. She spent 35 years at the EPA, mainly in positions related to water quality and safety, in addition to positions at OPPT and the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP). She retired from the EPA in 2013 as Director of the Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, and has been working at the Maryland Department of the Environment ever since. By most measures, she appears to be a public servant with a track record of integrity and a long-standing commitment to environmental protection.

However, Keehner’s career history is not without a few areas of concern. During the time she was Director of the Office of Standards and Health Protection in the EPA’s Office of Water, scientists criticized the EPA’s plan to change the limits for selenium to a level that would allow more pollution than they said was safe. Selenium, which occurs naturally in the environment in small amounts, is released by industrial processes including coal mining and irrigation at levels that poison wildlife, particularly fish. Keehner defended the EPA’s decision to propose a new limit, saying the choice was based on a study written by Forest Service biologist Dennis Lemly, but Lemly himself wrote to Keehner insisting that his study was being misinterpreted. The new standard proposed and defended by Keehner was never finalized, to the disappointment of coal companies who Keehner admitted would have benefited from being allowed to keep polluting and avoid costly cleanups. The standard was later weakened in June of 2016 after Keehner had left the EPA.

Keehner must recognize the grave stakes of this job, and, as The Intercept has demonstrated, she should expect her performance to be publicly tracked and evaluated. Should she choose to stand up to all violations of scientific integrity in her office, she could literally save countless lives from toxic chemical-induced disease and death. If she bends to the interests of industry, or defers important decisions to some of the office’s problematic career staffers, she will miss an opportunity to prevent unnecessary suffering. And isn’t that what government is all about?

Granted, even Keehner, though powerful, cannot solve all of the office’s problems. As Freedhoff told ProPublica last week, the entire division’s budget is starved, staff are overstretched, and the decades of neglect to the office, culminating in the disaster we saw the agency become during Trump’s presidency, means there are more barriers to carrying out the agency’s mission than current staff can handle.  

But Keehner’s presence is a necessary start. When she shows up to work on Monday, she has the opportunity to significantly boost morale, ensure scientific integrity and protect everyday Americans’ actual health. Lucky for all of us, reducing carcinogens doesn’t require heroic scientists making incredible new advances — just competent and uncaptured government. 

Dorothy Slater is a senior researcher at the Revolving Door Project, where she focuses on climate issues throughout the executive branch.

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