Revolving door from chemical industry to EPA: No way to boost public confidence

The Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Richard Denison, PhD tipped me onto news that the chemical industry’s chief trade association now has one of its own in a key EPA office.

Nancy Beck, PhD began work on Monday as second in command of EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Immediately prior to her appointment, Dr. Beck was with the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in the position of Senior Director of Regulatory Science Policy. Prior to that she worked in the White House’s regulatory czar’s office during parts of the G.W. Bush’s and Obama’s administrations.

President Trump has a funny way of “draining the swamp.”  Just a few weeks ago, ACC was recommending that EPA appoint Dr. Beck to its Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC). Now the ACC has achieved much more than that—-Dr. Beck will be running part of the show.

EDF’s Denison highlights the problem with Beck’s appointment to the Office of Chemical Safety:

“…[she] is expected to play a key role in implementing the new reforms made to TSCA, 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.”

He asks:

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?

In his blog post “Foxes, henhouse and TSCA implementation,” Denison reminded me of a theme that has swirled for decades around U.S. chemical safety policy. It was one of the reasons that the 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) gained traction. The public has little confidence in the current system for determining the safety of chemicals we encounter in our homes, workplaces and communities.

Dr. Beck agreed. She expressed a similar sentiment while with the ACC. She wrote that more transparency in the process of assessing the health risks of chemicals:

“…will surely ….boost the public’s confidence in the results.”

In her new position at EPA, Dr. Beck can move right away in that direction. She should start by answering the questions posed by Richard Denison. How does Dr. Beck plan to gain the public’s trust?  Will her decisions be grounded in the letter and spirit of the law and not on positions she advocated on behalf of chemical manufacturers?

Before President Trump was elected, Dr. Beck wrote of the important policy decisions the EPA is facing with the 2016 amendments to TSCA.  She wrote that the revisions:

“….suggests the need for regulatory action when there is an ‘unreasonable risk.’ However, what constitutes unreasonable risk is not fully articulated in the LCSA. The science policy determination…will be left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in their implementation of the statute.”

She may not have realized at that time, but those decisions now will be left to her and other Trump appointees. I wonder whether building public confidence will be on their minds.