White House, Pentagon, Industry Secretly Colluded to Skew National Academy of Sciences Perchlorate Report, Documents Show
WASHINGTON (January 10, 2005) -- The White House, the Defense Department, and defense contractors collaborated in a backroom campaign to manipulate a federal report on health threats posed by perchlorate, a toxic rocket fuel ingredient, according to documents recently obtained by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The chemical, which has been found in water and food supplies nationally, attacks the thyroid gland, and is especially harmful to fetuses and infants. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) will release the report later today. (Click here for an overview of the campaign and to see key documents. Click here for NRDC’s response to the NAS report.)
"The Defense Department's job is to protect Americans, not threaten our health, but these documents show that it is conspiring with its contractors and the White House to twist the science and avoid cleaning up a chemical that threatens our children's health," said Erik D. Olson, a senior attorney with NRDC, which obtained the documents through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. "We've never seen such a brazen campaign to pressure the National Academy of Sciences to downplay the hazards of a chemical, but it fits the pattern of this administration manipulating science at the expense of public health." (Over the last year more than 6,000 U.S. scientists, including 48 Nobel laureates, 62 National Medal of Science recipients, and several science advisers to past Republican presidents, signed a letter accusing the Bush administration of distorting and censoring science for political purposes (for more information, go to the Union of Concerned Scientists' Web site).)
For decades, the Defense Department and its contractors have used millions of pounds of perchlorate, often carelessly, contaminating water and food supplies across the country. It has been detected in drinking water supplies used by more than 20 million Americans, and has recently been found in milk and lettuce and other crops that the Food and Drug Administration and others have tested. Lawsuits have been filed in California against Pentagon contractors that contaminated drinking water supplies with perchlorate, triggering a protracted battle over how much they will have to clean up and whether low-level perchlorate exposure is associated with disease. Perchlorate hampers the thyroid gland's normal functioning, which can disrupt normal brain development in fetuses and infants.
The Defense Department has been blocking government efforts to address perchlorate pollution for more than a decade, but in the last few years it has intensified its campaign in the face of new revelations about its toxicity. In January 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency issued for peer review its third public draft assessment of perchlorate's toxicity since 1992, recommending that 1 part per billion (ppb) was the safe level in drinking water. In response, the Pentagon and its contractors lobbied to stop the assessment process and, with the help of the White House, ultimately wrested the assessment from EPA and handed it to NAS in 2003, a move that many observers viewed as a stalling tactic. The Pentagon has maintained that any perchlorate level below 200 ppb in drinking water is safe.
NRDC sued the White House, Defense Department and EPA in March 2004 after they ignored more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests, refusing to disclose any records documenting their campaign to influence NAS or details of the perchlorate problem. In response to the suit, the government recently provided some 30 boxes of documents to NRDC, but is still withholding thousands of other government records, including virtually all the key papers documenting White House and Pentagon efforts to influence NAS. However, the government was required by court order to include a "Vaughn Index" describing each of the withheld documents, which reveals an extraordinary level of White House and Pentagon effort to influence NAS. This behind-the-scenes campaign included uncommon, extensive involvement by White House and Pentagon officials to limit the scope of NAS' inquiry and select the panelists, as well as collaboration among the White House, Pentagon and DOD contractors to influence the panel.
"Scientists at the EPA, in state agencies, and in academia have all concluded that very low levels of perchlorate threaten the health of babies," said Dr. Jennifer Sass, an NRDC senior scientist. "Scientists should not be strong-armed by unqualified, partisan bureaucrats and corporate polluters to skew the evidence. We hope that the National Academy of Sciences was able to withstand the pressure and will be able to issue a scientifically credible report." Environment California, a Los Angeles-based organization, today is releasing a summary of the potential harmful effects of perchlorate on children, and a refutation of the Pentagon and defense contractors' assertions about the chemical. For the report, click here.
Regardless of the NAS report's conclusion, NRDC will continue to fight in court to force the government to release the withheld documents. The organization is being represented by Olson, Aaron Colangelo and other in-house attorneys, and by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.