Our investigative reporting colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) continue their look at the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of toxic pollution with a new report scrutinizing the agency's delay in announcing that "even a small amount of a chemical compound commonly found in tap water may cause cancer."
CPI reporters David Heath and Ronnie Greene found that in 2011, the EPA "was poised to cite evidence of cancer risks in hexavalent chromium, a chemical compound found in tap water — likely presaging stricter drinking water standards."
Hexavalent chromium is the same chemical featured in the successful environmental battle waged against Pacific Gas and Electric by citizen activist Erin Brockovich in Hinkley, Ca., in the 1990s. The case resulted in a $333 million payment to the town's 600 residents, who claimed the company poisoned their water with the chemical for over 30 years.
CPI reports that EPA reversed a decision by the agency's chemical-assessment program chief and delayed the release of its findings for at least four more years. Instead, EPA deferred to a panel of scientists who were supposed to be providing an unbiased review. But, as CPI found, "several of the panelists had worked on behalf of PG&E to defend the company in the Brockovich lawsuits."
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and the agency's chemical-assessment officials "declined requests for on-the-record interviews," CPI reports. "But an EPA official acknowledged privately that the agency was not fully aware of the chromium (VI) peer reviewers' ties to PG&E."
Update at 5:43 p.m. ET. Exploring Public Review:
EPA responded to NPR's post about the CPI story with a statement.
"The agency is currently working to improve the IRIS contract-managed peer review process and reduce any potential conflict of interest by increasing transparency and public input," writes assistant EPA press secretary Andra Belknap. "We are exploring the best ways to provide for public review of contract-managed peer review panels and ensure that contractors are held accountable for their assessment of any conflicts of interest."
Belknap declined to explain why EPA did not provide any agency officials for on-the-record interviews during CPI's reporting of its story.