Watchdog May Find EPA-Monsanto Links on Pesticides Routine

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By Tiffany Stecker

The EPA inspector general will look into a relationship between an agency deputy director in the pesticide program and Monsanto Co. But former agency officials say it’s unlikely that the relationship was improper given the level of interaction required by agency staff and companies to safely register pesticides.

Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General Arthur Elkins told Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) in a letter dated May 31 that he has initiated an inquiry into several matters related to the registration review of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s widely used Roundup weedkiller.

Lieu’s request was spurred by the unsealing of court documents in March that suggest that a former agency scientist worked closely with Monsanto, and the perception that he may have tried to derail another federal agency’s investigation into the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate.

Industry Interaction Routine

The investigation hits an office whose work relies on frequent communication with companies like Monsanto. OPP licenses pesticides for use, and registers herbicides, insect-killers, disinfectants, and other chemicals for pest control for sale. A review of Office of Pesticide Programs’ visitor records show staff meets frequently with pesticide-makers and their consultants.

EPA has “data call-in” authority under pesticide laws that allows the agency to require companies to conduct specific toxicology studies to support pesticide registrations and discuss their results.

For that reason, news of a possible OIG probe into the registration of glyphosate isn’t likely to shake the office, OPP’s former director told Bloomberg BNA.

“If people were alarmed at it, it would indicate they’re doing something wrong,” Jack Housenger, who retired from the EPA earlier this year, said. “I don’t think they’re doing something wrong.”

In his three years at the Office of Pesticide Programs, Jack Fowle said staff kept their internal decision-making close to the vest when meeting with companies, often declining to answer questions that would disclose internal agency deliberations.

“It was not tipping of the hand or any kind of cozy relationship,” Fowle, who was a division director in the pesticides office and spent more than 30 years at the EPA, said of the meetings with registrants.

Investigation Could Be Short

EPA’s Jess Rowland interacted with Monsanto’s regulatory affairs manager Dan Jenkins on glyphosate.

In those conversations, Jenkins suggested that Rowland would try to end the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s evaluation of glyphosate’s toxicity.

“If I can kill this, I should get a medal,” Jenkins quoted Rowland as saying in an email to colleagues. Emails also suggest that Rowland may have tipped off staff at the company in 2015 of a then-pending decision at the International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify glyphosate as a “probable” carcinogen, giving Monsanto advance notice to build a public relations defense of their herbicide.

The stream of documents may thin out going forward as U.S. District for the Northern District of California Judge Vince Chhabria has signaled that plaintiffs’ attorneys in a cancer case are releasing these documents to indirectly hand information to the news media.

“The concern I have,” he said at the hearing, “is that you are using this litigation as a PR campaign. That is obviously what you have been trying to do and that is going to stop.”

The EPA does not comment on ongoing investigations, an agency spokesman said.

The IG investigation may not go very far, said Steve Hopkins, a former union representative for the EPA who worked on voluntary programs at OPP for 12 years. In his experience, the inspector general responded to a complaint by interviewing the supervisor two levels above the individual in question. The probe ended when the upper manager deemed there was no problem to investigate, Hopkins said.

Watchdog’s Approach

But EPA IG spokesman Jeffrey Lagda said this approach is not always used, and investigators must take into account a variety of factors when moving forward.

“We have to consider, among other things: Who is suspected of what activity? Is the supervisor being interviewed as a witness or a subject? Is the supervisor below them believed to be a part of the activity in question? Is the supervisor being interviewed to corroborate information?” Lagda said in an email.

The office’s director of the Pesticide Re-Evaluation Division said recently that the office’s licensing work sets OPP aside from the agency’s other mission areas.

“We are fundamentally different from the rest of EPA in many ways,” Yu-Ting Guilaran told an audience at a pesticide industry conference in April. “It’s bringing a new active ingredient onto the market, versus ... water or air or other programs.”

Undue industry influence on the office’s work, however, is not unheard of. Hopkins, who left EPA in 2015 after 12 years with the agency and served as a union representative in the pesticide program, said he has represented employees who felt pressured to quickly complete reviews of pesticide registrations, despite their concerns that the studies were faulty.

Registrants “are the ones who get you your money and keep the program alive,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

For More Information

The Inspector General's letter is available at http://src.bna.com/pGS.

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