Wheeler to IG: Take back report critical of agency

By Sean Reilly | 04/01/2020 01:37 PM EDT

In a highly unusual move, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wants the agency’s inspector general to scrap a report that faults a lack of outreach to communities potentially exposed to a cancer-causing chemical.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Francis Chung/E&E News

This story was updated at 8:15 p.m. EDT.

In a highly unusual move, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is calling on the agency’s inspector general to scrap a new report that faults a lack of outreach to communities potentially exposed to a cancer-causing chemical.

"The tone and substance of this report indicates a disconnect," Wheeler said in a news release yesterday evening. "Most surprising," he added, is that the IG’s office provided no indication in a final meeting on the report "that there would be any unresolved issues" with EPA’s response.


Wheeler said, "As a result, we are formally requesting the EPA I.G. rescind the report so it can be appropriately updated." Asked for more detail on what Wheeler was seeking, EPA spokeswoman Andrea Woods said in an email this evening that he wants the inspector general "to pull back the entire report and come back to the table for further discussions."

Earlier however, Inspector General Sean O’Donnell, who has been on the job for barely two months, signaled through a spokesman that he has no plans to do so.

The report "is an example of the seriousness we take our responsibility to alert the EPA, Congress, and the public to urgent concerns about human health and the environment," the spokesman, Jeffrey Lagda, said in a statement. While the inspector general prefers to reach agreement with EPA on its recommendations before issuing a report, "that is not always possible," Lagda said. "We look forward to discussing these matters with the EPA during the resolution process identified in this report."

But Wheeler’s salvo is a sign of continued tension with the IG’s office, which clashed last year with then-EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson for refusing to cooperate in two inquiries.

Jackson, who left the agency in February for a job with the National Mining Association, eventually sat for an interview in one of those probes.

Governmentwide, friction between federal officials and the inspectors general who serve as in-house watchdogs are not unusual. But Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, an advocacy group, said in an email today that she could not recall a comparable clash.

"This is a great example of why it’s important to have strong I.G.s who have the power to tell bad news the agency head doesn’t want out," Brian said.

‘Acceptable corrective action’

The new report, a "management alert" released yesterday, found that EPA and state regulators failed to reach out to people in the bulk of 25 communities around the country considered particularly vulnerable to exposure to ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas used in medical sterilization plants (E&E News PM, March 31).

Calling the matter urgent, the inspector general recommended immediate action to warn those residents know of the potential health risks.

The last formal meeting between the two sides took place on Jan. 14, according to Woods. In a Jan. 31 response to a draft version of the report, Doug Benevento, EPA’s associate deputy administrator, acknowledged the outreach disparity but said the IG’s findings should be revised to reflect the need for "more refined investigation of risks" before holding public meetings or taking other steps to let residents know about the potential threat. Benevento also urged O’Donnell’s office to note the role other federal agencies play in outreach.

In the final report, however, the IG cited the lack of a schedule for conducting the added risk analysis in deeming Benevento’s response inadequate and called the matter "unresolved pending receipt of an acceptable corrective action plan with milestones from EPA."

EPA’s lack of communication with some communities, mostly in the South and West, contrasts sharply with the attention that agency air officials have paid to Chicago-area suburbs.

After EPA upgraded its assessment of the dangers posed by ethylene oxide, the presence of a sterilization facility in the area unleashed a public furor and drew the attention of Illinois members of Congress.

Work calendars for then-EPA air chief Bill Wehrum and other officials obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show repeated meetings over the Chicago situation last year.

Wheeler, who has headed the agency since July 2018, has made a priority of risk communication. The disparity acknowledged by Benevento raises questions about how evenhandedly that policy is being applied.

In yesterday’s release, Wheeler pointed to the agency’s work to update ethylene oxide emissions standards and said an adviser was recently installed at EPA headquarters "to consult on all risk communication" involving the chemical. The inspector general’s report "is not representative of the EPA’s actions, focus and ongoing commitment to address potential risks surrounding ethylene oxide," Woods said today. "In the interim, EPA will continue to work proactively and transparently to protect the health of impacted communities."