On January 10, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel released a report evaluating the potential health threats posed by perchlorate, a toxic rocket fuel ingredient. Documents obtained from a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits against the White House, Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that the panel was subjected to massive pressure to downplay the hazards of the chemical. This behind-the-scenes campaign included extraordinary involvement by White House and DOD staff to limit the scope of the NAS panel's inquiry and select the panelists, and collaboration among the White House, Pentagon and defense contractors to influence the panel.
There is still much that we do not know about this clandestine effort, because the White House, DOD and EPA have attempted to cover up their campaign to pressure NAS and to undermine efforts to address perchlorate pollution by unlawfully withholding or redacting an unprecedented number of documents that number in the thousands. What we do know is the White House, Pentagon, senior EPA officials and government contractors are working together to avoid cleaning up a toxic chemical that jeopardizes the health of millions of Americans.
For decades, the DOD 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, for example, and has recently been found in much of the milk and lettuce and other crops that the Food and Drug Administration and others have tested. Major lawsuits have been filed in California and other states against DOD 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 is now known to hamper the thyroid gland's normal functioning, which can disrupt normal brain development in fetuses and infants.
The DOD has been blocking government efforts to address perchlorate 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, EPA 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 DOD 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. When the news media reported that the Bush administration had asked NAS to review the EPA risk assessment, it surprised the lead EPA scientists and staff who had been working on perchlorate for many years, according to documents NRDC obtained (read the email). (Pressure from the DOD and its contractors has been so successful that the EPA recently deleted from its Web site the statement that 1 ppb is the draft perchlorate safe level, although the highly technical document the agency used to reach that conclusion is still available. The previous version of EPA's website stating that 1 ppb is the draft safe level is available here; the "cleansed" version is currently posted on EPA's site.)
In 2003 and 2004, NRDC sent more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to EPA, DOD and the White House requesting information on the decision to refer the perchlorate issue to NAS, as well as the extent of perchlorate contamination nationally, its toxic effects, and the agencies' activities regarding the chemical. After the agencies stonewalled -- for more than a year in some cases -- NRDC was forced to sue, and we recently obtained about 30 boxes of documents. But the White House and relevant agencies continue to withhold or to "redact" (black out) thousands more documents or sections of documents. (A single-spaced list of the withheld documents, the so-called "Vaughn Index" the government submitted to the court, is more than 1,500 pages long, an unparalleled volume of record-withholding in our decades of experience with FOIA). NRDC now will seek to obtain the rest of the documents from the agencies by court order.
Although NRDC is still organizing, reviewing and evaluating the thousands of documents we have obtained, we made the startling discovery that the DOD, its contractors, and senior White House officials have been involved in an extraordinary effort to manipulate the NAS perchlorate panel.
White House and Pentagon Manipulation of NAS 'Charge' on Perchlorate
Whenever the government asks NAS to address a scientific issue, it provides NAS a "charge" that outlines the scientific issues to be reviewed. This is essentially the NAS panel's roadmap for its evaluation, and is the central organizing document for the NAS review. Documents show that:
- Senior White House political officials actively participated in reviewing the scientific charge sent to the NAS on perchlorate. While the existence of these documents and their authors are known from the Vaughn Index, the text of every White House record relating to this review was either redacted in its entirety, or the entire document was withheld. [See OMB Vaughn index, January-February 2003, document number 2003-1-134; February-March 2003, document numbers 2003-1-306 and 2003-1-307; February-March 2003, document numbers 2003-3-355; 2003-3-358; 2003-3-359.] For example, John Graham, the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) regulatory review office, personally commented on the highly technical charge to the NAS. According to the Vaughn Index (See, for example, OMB Vaughn index, January-February 2003, document number 2003-1-135; March 2003, document number 2003-1-403; April 2003, document number 2003-1-591; January-February 2003, document number 2003-2-167; May 2003, document number 2003-2-1112; November-January, document numbers 2003-3-61; 2003-3-64; January-March 2003 document number P-549), other White House officials also were involved at varying levels in the review and debate on the NAS panel and charge, including:
- Mitch Daniels, director, White House OMB
- Nancy Dorn, deputy director, White House OMB
- Philip Perry, general counsel, White House OMB
- James Connaughton, chair, White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)
- Elizabeth Stolpe, associate director, White House CEQ
- Paul Noe, White House OMB, Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs
- Nancy Beck, White House OMB, Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs
- Daryl L. Joseffer, White House OMB
- James Laity, White House OMB, Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs
- Margo Schwab, White House OMB, Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs
- Paul Anastas, assistant director, White House Office of Science & Technology Policy
- Edna Curtin, White House OMB
- Dennis Deziel, White House CEQ
- Claudia Abendroth, White House OMB
- Dana Perino, communications director, White House CEQ
- Kathie Olson, associate director, White House OSTP
- Stanley Kaufman, deputy associate administrator, OMB
NRDC finds it startling and disturbing that senior White House officials reviewed and apparently edited a highly technical document charging NAS with evaluating detailed scientific questions. While the existence of these edits and their authors are known from the Vaughn Index, the text of every White House document relating to this review was redacted in its entirety, or the entire document was withheld.
- Perchlorate manufacturers and users (defense contractors) who were facing enormous potential liability for perchlorate contamination heavily lobbied the White House. The White House withheld information on a meeting with Lockheed-Martin regarding perchlorate, and the Pentagon withheld "talking points" for the White House developed by Kerr-McGee, another perchlorate industry giant. [See OMB Vaughn Index, February 2001-June 2002, document number 2001-36; DOD Vaughn Index, DOD 15, document number 15-3.]
- DOD officials also actively participated in developing the NAS charge questions and apparently objected to portions of the NAS Statement of Work (SOW), the document describing NAS's detailed plans for conducting its scientific inquiry. Again, while the existence of the Pentagon edits and objections is noted in the Vaughn Index, those documents were withheld or entirely redacted. The Pentagon even refused to divulge the authors or recipients of the documents, a clear violation of longstanding FOIA law. For example, the Pentagon withheld documents titled "Questions to the NAS in reference to perchlorate health-based research data" [See DOD Vaughn Index, DOD 38] and "Email with six attached emails discussing the EPA-NAS contract, inconsistencies with the SOW and NAS charge questions that had been prepared…" [See DOD Vaughn Index, DOD 19].
- The Pentagon withheld documents showing that it worked with perchlorate polluters to lobby the White House. For example, as noted above, it withheld "Talking points for OIRA [the White House OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] on Perchlorate Process Issues as relayed by Kerr-McGee personnel." These "talking points" were provided by Kerr-McGee, formerly the largest manufacturer of perchlorate and owner of a perchlorate plant in Nevada that has contaminated drinking water supplies used by millions of people. [See DOD Vaughn Index, DOD 15, document number 15-3.]
- The final charge questions EPA sent to NAS closely track Pentagon and DOD contractors' allegations about the deficiencies in EPA's risk assessment, such as allegations that the human body "adapts" to perchlorate, that the perchlorate animal studies done for DOD and the perchlorate industry that EPA relied upon are flawed, and that perchlorate poisoning should not be a problem because iodine deficiency allegedly is rare in the United States. None of the issues raised by public health, environmental, or other experts who expressed concerns that EPA has underestimated perchlorate's risks were specifically included in the charge to NAS.
White House, DOD and Contractor Manipulation of NAS Panel Membership
An NAS panel is only as objective, independent and reliable as its members, but NRDC has uncovered evidence that the White House, Pentagon and DOD contractors sought to manipulate the panel's membership to place "friendly" scientists on it. Generally when EPA requests a review from NAS, EPA scientific staff may suggest a few experts in the field as potential panelists, but we are not aware of any examples of previous White House political involvement in such issues.
In this case, we have uncovered evidence that White House officials were involved in discussions about who should be appointed to the NAS panel. (See OMB Vaughn Index, June 2003, document number 2003-1-1041; May-August 2003, document number P-316) The White House has withheld or redacted the text of every document in which White House staff discussed who should be appointed to the panel or the makeup of the panel.
Pentagon officials also apparently were involved in naming members of the NAS panel. For example, DOD withheld documents titled "Discussion of meeting in order to develop list of candidates to the NAS panel," [See DOD Vaughn Index, DOD 13 "Discussion of Nominations to NAS Board on Perchlorate," [DOD 31] and "Attached documents titled 'NAS/NRC Perchlorate Panel Selection Dynamics' [DOD 17.] Again the Pentagon refused to release the documents, or even the authors and recipients of them, in clear violation of FOIA law.
When the 15-member NAS perchlorate panel was named, [click here for committee list] not surprisingly it included several close allies of the DOD and industry. The panel, first announced in July 2003, included:
- Richard Bull was named a panelist despite his ongoing work as a paid expert witness for Lockheed-Martin in litigation involving perchlorate and other contamination of drinking water in California. [December 18 Letter Perchlorate Ingestion etc.; NRDC Letter to Muir February 2004; NRDC Letter to Alberts October 2003] After repeated objections from NRDC and many others, and after he publicly took the position at an industry-funded meeting that low-level perchlorate exposure was innocuous - while the NAS review was ongoing - Bull finally resigned in June 2004, late in the NAS deliberation process.
- Charles Capen remains on the NAS panel. He was a paid consultant on perchlorate issues to the aerospace industry-funded organization Toxicology Excellence in Risk Assessment (TERA). [December 18 Letter Perchlorate Ingestion etc.; NRDC Letter to Muir February 2004; NRDC Letter to Alberts October 2003],
- James Lamb, a private consultant at the Weinberg Group, remains on the NAS panel. The Weinberg Group describes itself as follows: "For twenty years, leading companies have depended on the Weinberg Group when their products are at risk. Our technical, scientific and regulatory experts deliver the crucial results that get products to market and keep products on the market. The Weinberg Group has successfully partnered with leading companies from around the world in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, chemical, consumer product, food and cosmetic industries."[Click here for the Group's website.]
- Michael McClain worked for pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-LaRoche for many years, and has since done extensive industry consulting. McClain's NAS biography was revised after questions were raised about the lack of disclosure of panelists' conflicts of interest. The final version states: "He reviewed scientific studies on perchlorate for private clients and provided comments to the EPA Peer Review Panel on Perchlorate in February 1999."[See biography here.]
Industry & Pentagon Lobbying of NAS
Since the NAS panel convened, defense contractors and their allies at the Pentagon and NASA have been heavily lobbying NAS. They have been in regular contact with NAS, and have submitted dozens of documents, letters and emails, and hundreds of pages of new, generally unpublished data, studies and reviews to the NAS panel, right up to October 2004, when the panel was concluding its deliberations. [See Public Access Materials.] For example, the DOD contractors' Perchlorate Study Group funded, and DOD sponsored, a one-sided "Perchlorate State of the Science" review conference in Nebraska, and submitted to NAS the extensive summary of the conference that claims to represent the "consensus" view of "independent" scientists. [See University of Nebraska PSG review.]
1. Email from Kevin Mayer
2. EPA's website
3. OMB Vaughn index, January-February 2003
4. OMB Vaughn index, February-March 2003
5. OMB Vaughn index, February-March 2003
6. OMB Vaughn index, March 2003
7. OMB Vaughn index, April 2003
8. OMB Vaughn index, January-February 2003
9. OMB Vaughn index, May 2003
10. OMB Vaughn index, November-January
11. OMB Vaughn index, January-March 2003
12. OMB Vaughn index, February 2001-June 2002
13. DOD Vaughn index, DOD 15
14. DOD Vaughn index, DOD 38
15. DOD Vaughn index, DOD 19
16. Charge to NAS
17. OMB Vaughn index, June 2003
18. OMB Vaughn index, May-August 2003
19. DOD Vaughn index, DOD 13
20. DOD Vaughn index, DOD 31
21. DOD Vaughn index, DOD 17
22. December 18 letter, Perchlorate ingestion
23. NRDC letter to Warren R. Muir, February 2004
24. NRDC letter to Bruce Alberts, October 2003
25. Index of documents sent to NAS
26. University of Nebraska PSG Review
- See, e.g. the FDA's November 2004 data at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/clo4data.html ; the [Southern California] Press Enterprise's special report finding lettuce contamination with perchlorate at http://www.pe.com/digitalextra/environment/perchlorate/vt_stories/PE_NEWS_nlettuc27.58086.html; Environmental Working Group's 2003 data at http://www.ewg.org/reports/rocketlettuce/.
- See EPA, "Perchlorate Environmental Contamination: Toxicological Review and Risk Characterization," January 2002, available at http://cfpub2.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=24002.