Fed Watchdog Slams EPA on Dicamba – DTN

Dicamba can damage soybean plants that aren't resistant to it, causing cupped leaves. Photo: Ohio State University

Dicamba can damage soybean plants that aren't resistant to it, causing cupped leaves. Photo: Ohio State University

Senior EPA officials deliberately mishandled the agency’s 2018 registration decision for three dicamba herbicides — FeXapan, XtendiMax, and Engenia — according to the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The OIG, a federal agency tasked with reviewing EPA decisions and policy for abuse and errors, issued a scathing report Monday, outlining a number of mistakes made by the agency, including scuttled internal scientific reviews and deliberate manipulation of scientific documents by senior EPA officials under the Trump administration. Staff scientists at the agency told the OIG inspectors that they felt “muted” and “constrained” in their ability to voice problems with the registration and at least one feared retaliation within the agency if they did so.

The OIG report echoes many of the same problems first reported on by DTN in March, based on an internal memo from a Biden EPA official condemning the dicamba registration as one of several EPA actions tainted by political interference.

Read DTN’s report here.



The OIG report specifically called out the involvement of three senior administrative officials, identified only by their position, at the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. DTN’s research shows the following individuals held those named positions at the time of the 2018 dicamba registration: Charlotte Bertrand, former acting principal deputy assistant administrator, Nancy Beck, former deputy assistant administrator and Erik Baptist, former deputy assistant administrator for Law and Policy.

Staff scientists at the agency told OIG investigators that these individuals “were more involved in the dicamba decision than in other pesticide registration decisions.”

“This led to senior-level changes to or omissions from scientific documents, including omissions of some conclusions addressing stakeholder risks,” the report concluded.

Across the agency, other staff scientists reported a chilling effect on their opinions and concerns over the dicamba registration.



“In separate interviews, scientists from the OPP’s Registration Division, EFED [Environmental Fate and Effects Division], and BEAD [Biological and Economic Analysis Division] all described feeling constrained or muted in sharing their scientific integrity concerns with senior management during the dicamba registration process,” the OIG report stated.

Ultimately, the report concluded, these problems and mistakes led to a federal appeals court vacating all three herbicide registrations in June 2020. “The EPA’s actions on the dicamba registration left the decision legally vulnerable, resulting in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacating the three 2018 registrations for violating FIFRA by substantially understating some risks and failing to acknowledge others entirely,” the report stated.

It is not immediately clear what this OIG report’s conclusions mean for current dicamba herbicides, which were registered in October 2020 and are already facing multiple federal lawsuits. In an emailed response to DTN, an EPA spokesperson said the agency is standing by the 2020 dicamba decision.

“The agency has responded to the Office of the Inspector General’s report and is implementing several actions to ensure that our pesticide registration decisions are free from political interference and that the agency’s scientific integrity policy is upheld,” the statement said. “The agency looks forward to productive conversations with the Office of the Inspector General as we work to resolve this matter. EPA stands by its 2020 decision made with the input of career scientists and managers.”

Current EPA principal deputy assistant administrator for OCSSP, Michal Freedhoff, confirmed that the agency agrees with OIG’s conclusion that EPA mishandled the 2018 dicamba decision.

“This incident occurred despite the best efforts of OCSPP’s career scientists and managers to recommend a different approach that was scientifically, procedurally and legally sound,” Freedhoff wrote in a formal response to OIG’s report. She went on to condemn the meddling by senior EPA officials as deliberately violating the agency’s own standards for scientific integrity. “The dicamba incident described in this Draft Report did not occur due to a lack of awareness of or training on the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy,” Freedhoff wrote. “It occurred because OCSPP’s past senior leadership consciously chose to advance a policy outcome in a manner inconsistent with the Scientific Integrity Policy.”

RULES IGNORED, CHANGES MADE

All pesticide registrations must go through internal review panels, including a Product Review Panel by EPA officials in the BEAD office. That didn’t happen with the 2018 dicamba registration review, the OIG concluded. Even more problematic, staff scientists told investigators that these panels — even if they had occurred — wouldn’t have mattered, “due to significant involvement of senior management” in the final registration decision.

Some staff scientists so strongly disagreed with senior EPA officials’ revisions in the final 2018 registration decision that they refused to sign the final document, the OIG report noted.

Those revisions included:

  • a decision to use plant height as a standard measure of dicamba effects on plants, which went against the EPA, academic and industry standard of using visual signs of plant injury. “This direction by senior management changed the division’s scientific conclusions,” the report said.
  • a decision to only use dicamba injury reports counted by dicamba registrants Bayer, BASF and Corteva, rather than EPA’s other data sources on injury reports. That decision would come back to haunt EPA, as “[i]n its ruling to vacate the dicamba registrations, the Ninth Circuit Court found the dicamba damages to be substantially understated,” the OIG report noted.
  • the removal of several sections of EPA’s original Benefits and Impacts analysis for dicamba.

“Multiple scientists said they felt directed to change the science to support a certain decision and that the reasons for senior managers’ requested changes were not documented,” the OIG investigators wrote.

EPA’S REPONSE

The OIG recommended EPA implement three changes to ensure these problems don’t occur again at the agency:



  1. require senior managers or policy makers to document changes made to EPA’s opinions, analyses and conclusions in pesticide registrations as well as document the basis for those changes.
  2. require verification from senior EPA administrators that EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy was reviewed and adhered to for pesticide registration decisions.
  3. conduct annual training for all staff on the agency’s commitment to that Scientific Integrity Policy

EPA agreed with the first and third recommendation, but balked at the second, given how unusual it was for senior EPA administrators to be involved in pesticide registrations, outside of the dicamba registration. OIG agreed to let this requirement stand only for registrations that involved senior staff.

But OIG remains unsatisfied with how EPA will ensure that its Scientific Integrity Policy will be followed by senior political appointees in the future.

“[EPA] acknowledges that past senior managers chose to advance a policy outcome in a manner that may be inconsistent with the Scientific Integrity Policy,” the investigators concluded. “[Freedhoff] notes that, over the past few years, political interference has sometimes compromised scientific integrity. The Agency’s statements support the need for safeguards to assure adherence to the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy during the pesticide registration process, as intended by our recommendation. This recommendation is unresolved.”

See the full report here.

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

 
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