EPA: Politics Tainted Dicamba Decision

EPA Ignored Science in Past Dicamba Decision, New EPA Official Says

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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EPA's 2018 dicamba registration decision ignored science on the herbicide's risks and was tainted by political interference, according to an internal EPA email DTN has obtained. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- EPA's past 2018 dicamba registration decision was tainted by political interference and ignored important science on the herbicide's risks, according to an internal EPA email DTN has obtained and verified with the agency.

"Over the past few years, I am aware that political interference sometimes compromised the integrity of our science," Michal Freedhoff, the new acting assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in an email sent to all OCSPP employees on March 10, 2021.

The email highlights the agency's 2018 dicamba registrations of Bayer's XtendiMax herbicide, BASF's Engenia herbicide and Corteva's FeXapan herbicide as an example of that political interference.

"In 2018, OCSPP senior leadership directed career staff to: (1) rely on a limited data set of plant effects endpoints; (2) discount specific studies (some with more robust data) used in assessing potential risks and benefits; and (3) discount scientific information on negative impacts," Freedhoff wrote.

"This interference contributed to a court's vacating registrations based on these and other deficiencies, which in turn impacted growers' ability to use this product," she added, referring to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling on June 3, 2020, which vacated the registrations of XtendiMax, Engenia and FeXapan. See the DTN story on that ruling here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

It's not immediately clear what EPA's new view of its 2018 dicamba registrations will mean for how the agency will manage its most recent dicamba re-registrations, released in October 2020, for XtendiMax, Engenia and Tavium (Syngenta). (EPA also granted a new registration to Corteva's FeXapan herbicide, but the company has opted to discontinue it.)

On Monday, March 8, Freedhoff told a conference of pesticide regulators that the agency is facing multiple lawsuits over those new registrations and -- in an effort to be able to defend them in court -- EPA is not allowing states to use Section 24(c) special local needs labels to either restrict or expand those labels. See the DTN story on that announcement here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

At that conference, Freedhoff hinted that the agency may reevaluate its 2020 registrations at the end of this growing season. "I think we felt like we need a growing season worth of data under our belts to see what happens and make sure the measures put in place in 2020 were the right ones," she told regulators at that meeting.

The March 10 email from Freedhoff also highlights two other EPA decisions as politically compromised: its 2020 risk evaluation of an industrial compound, trichloroethylene (TCE) and its 2018 toxicity assessment of perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS), a member of the long-lived PFAS family of chemicals that have been in found in water and food packaging.

"White House staff directed OCSPP career staff to alter the draft TCE risk evaluation to change the point of departure used for making determinations of risk to a less sensitive endpoint," Freedhoff wrote. "... the magnitude of the risk from exposures to TCE would have been greater had EPA relied upon the fetal cardiac defect endpoint that had been used in previous EPA peer-reviewed assessments."

As for the PFBS toxicity assessment, the Biden EPA removed it from its website back in February because it "included conclusions purporting to reflect science when in fact they were the product of biased political interference directed in part by OSCPP's past political leadership," Freedhoff wrote.

Freedhoff's memo is written as a directive to EPA employees to reaffirm the agency's commitment to scientific integrity moving forward.

"I affirm my commitment to you to act with scientific integrity," Freedhoff said. "I expect you to do likewise when working with me and with each other." Freedhoff tells EPA employees she expects them to freely and openly discuss differing scientific opinions with her and their managers, point out errors when necessary, and respect "the role of science in risk assessments."

The letter states that policymakers at the top of the agency will be in better communication with scientists at the agency and calls for an "an environment free from political interference in the science."

"I expect ... an environment -- led in the first instance by OCSPP managers -- where everyone feels comfortable identifying errors, asking questions, and expressing differing scientific opinions, all without fear either of retaliation or being denigrated for speaking up," Freedhoff concluded.

See the full memo Freedhoff sent to OCSPP employees here: https://www.dtn.com/….

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

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Emily Unglesbee