POLITICS
07/20/2018 03:05 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2018

EPA Staff Aimed To Protect Pruitt From Toxic Chemical He Failed To Regulate

As the EPA sat on formaldehyde report, aides prepared to air out a worrisome desk for their boss.

Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency head whose anti-regulation crusade couldn’t save his job from his repeated ethics scandals, picked out an ornate desk for an expensive office remodel last year that concerned his staff because it contained toxic formaldehyde.

Prutt’s underlings sought to protect him from effects of the chemical in the furniture, months before Pruitt delayed the release of an EPA report warning the public about the dangers of formaldehyde, Politico reported Thursday. 

“The irony would be comical if not so dangerous,” Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said in a statement.

Pruitt, whose time in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet was notable for lavish spending of taxpayer money and aggressive rollback of environmental regulations, caused concern with his desk selection when a staffer noticed a California-required warning label that the furniture contained formaldehyde, a carcinogen found in pressed wood and many other products. It wasn’t clear whether Pruitt ultimately ordered the desk. 

Reginald Allen, then EPA acting deputy chief of staff, contacted Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, then head of the agency’s toxic chemicals office, to ask about the warning, according to emails obtained by nonprofit watchdog group American Oversight. She suggested the desk be aired out for days before setting it up in Pruitt’s office.

The “good news,” Cleland-Hamnett noted, is that California “regulates formaldehyde emissions” ... so that “exposure from the desk is likely to be fine.”

At the time, an EPA regulation limiting formaldehyde emissions had been put on hold by the Trump administration, Politico noted. In addition, a draft EPA report on the risks of the chemical that was completed during the Obama administration has yet to be released by the EPA.

Pruitt, who resigned this month amid numerous ethics investigations, was asked about the formaldehyde report during a Senate hearing in January. “It’s my understanding that the EPA has finalized its conclusion that formaldehyde causes leukemia and other cancers,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told Pruitt then.

The EPA chief responded: “You know, my understanding is similar to yours.”

The EPA has been lobbied hard by the chemical industry to delay the report. A key member of the American Chemistry Council — Kimberly Wise White — now sits on the EPA’s Science Advisory Panel while maintaining her role in the lobbying organization. A former member of the group, Nancy Beck, is now a top deputy shaping the EPA’s policies on hazardous chemicals.

Politico reported that Pruitt aides, including chief of staff Ryan Jackson, blocked the report from going through an internal review, effectively stalling it and keeping it secret.

Markey and two other senators sent a letter to Pruitt in May expressing concern that “political appointees” were dragging their feet on releasing the assessment as the agency was being pressured by corporations with links to people inside the EPA.

EPA officials have denied suppressing the report and say they are continuing to “discuss” the draft report with “our partners.”

Formaldehyde is one of the most commonly used chemicals in the U.S. It’s utilized in wood composites in furniture and cabinets, as well as in cleaning products and cosmetics, and is a component of oil refinery emissions.

Formaldehyde can be inhaled as a gas or vapor, and can be absorbed through the skin in liquid form, according to the National Cancer Institute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says formaldehyde is “known to cause cancer.”

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