Trump administration officials changed scientific analyses to fit policy decisions, omitted risk conclusions, skipped peer reviews of scientific documents and made other policy decisions during the registration process for three dicamba products in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog.
The chemical is used widely in Indiana to control weeds among soybean and other crops.
The EPA Office of Inspector General found that Trump White House officials ordered senior career officials from the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention to override agency scientists’ conclusions on risk and safety during the registration process for Bayer CropScience’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, Corteva, Inc.’s FeXapan and BASF SE’s Engenia dicamba herbicides.
The three products received conditional approval for use in 2016 and 2017. The Trump EPA then extended their registrations for two years, using altered scientific findings and risk reports.
The interference left the registration vulnerable to legal challenges, and a federal appeals court eventually overturned the registration, saying the agency potentially put the health of farmers and their crops in Indiana and several other states at risk.
“[M]ultiple EPA scientists told us that senior leaders were more involved in the dicamba decision than other pesticide registration decisions. Multiple scientists said they felt directed to, quote, ‘Change the science,’ to support a certain decision made by senior managers,” said Alton Reid, a health scientist with the EPA OIG. “Perhaps by omitting data to skew conclusions or by using data presented by the registrant instead of independent source data. However, the scientists said that management did not document or explain the reasons for these changes.”
One scientist told investigators that senior managers decided to use plant height as the standard measure of how dicamba affected plants, instead of visual signs of plant injury, an approach recommended by EPA scientists.
Reid said the switch changed the scientific conclusions used for the registration decision.
Investigators were also given emails showing that senior managers “provided an outline for how to rewrite a benefits-and-impact analysis document.” The rewritten analysis omitted several sections the scientists felt were pertinent, according to Reid.
Those omissions were part of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision to vacate the registrations.
“The EPA made multiple errors in granting the conditional registrations,” Judge William Fletcher wrote. “[T]he EPA substantially understated the risks it acknowledged, and it entirely failed to acknowledge other risks.”
The EPA canceled the registration in June 2020 for the three products, but former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler allowed farmers to use existing stocks of the products for more than a month after the decision.
The agency in October approved new five-year registrations for Bayer CropScience’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology and BASF SE’s Engenia, two of the three previously approved products, and a new product, Syngenta’s Tavium Plus VaporGrip.
Dicamba has been useful for Hoosier farmers with crops that have grown resistant to another widely used herbicide, glyphosate. But some dicamba products had a tendency to drift onto neighboring homes and fields, causing crop losses and some health risks.
The new registrations sought to decrease drift risk by changing when farmers would be allowed to use the product. The Office of Indiana State Chemist set a June 20 cutoff date for dicamba applications to reduce drift risk.
The OISC decision led to a 66% reduction in dicamba drift complaints.
The State Chemist also tightened use of dicamba products by listing some types of the product, including those involved in the 2020 registration, as Highly Volatile Herbicides, a designation that allows the OISC to require written permission for sale, distribution and application of those products under state law.
Volatility in dicamba registration has led some herbicide manufacturers to move away from the chemical for its products.
Corteva Agriscience, formerly Indianapolis-based Dow AgriSciences, discontinued sales of its Fexapan herbicide in February. It is now promoting a different product for weed control, an herbicide made with 2,4-D choline.
While states and industry decide their future moves with dicamba, the EPA faces more legal action for its dicamba registrations.
The same organizations that filed the lawsuit that led to the registration cancellations filed a second lawsuit in December 2020, alleging that the EPA failed in its legal duties to ensure the pesticides would not cause unreasonable harm by rushing the registration process in order to get them issued before the 2020 presidential election.
Attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity, National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network North America, said EPA allowed a harried staff of 50 EPA employees to rush the registrations by omitting several procedural requirements.
Wheeler made the announcement on Oct. 27, 2020, just six days before the election, at an event in Georgia that included the heads of the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cotton Council.
The interference into the dicamba decision was not the previous administration’s only effort to have policy trump science.
White House officials were also found to interfere in the risk evaluation for tricholorethylene, a chemical used as a metal degreasing agent and spot cleaning agent in dry cleaners.
According to Elizabeth Shogren from The Center for Investigative Reporting, White House officials directed the EPA to override health risk findings from agency scientists for the chemical, omitting serious health effects like kidney toxicity, fetal heart damage and potential carcinogenicity.
The interference potentially saved the U.S. government and private industries billions of dollars in cleanup costs, as TCE is present at 1,400 operational facilities and nearly 800 Superfund sites, including several in Indiana.
One such site, the Pike and Mulberry Streets Plume in Martinsville, is being investigated for links to rare forms of cancer that have developed in residents.