In September 2010, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency came to a startling conclusion: Even a small amount of a chemical compound commonly found in tap water may cause cancer.
The compound, hexavalent chromium, gained infamy in the Oscar-winning film Erin Brockovich, based on the David-vs.-Goliath legal duel between desert dwellers in Hinkley, Calif., and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. The film ends in Hollywood fashion, with the corporate polluter paying $333 million to people suffering from illnesses.
But in real life, the drama continues. More than 70 million Americans drink traces of chromium every day, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization.
And now, more than a decade after the film, EPA scientists cite “clear evidence” that the chemical compound, also known as chromium (VI), can cause cancer. The federal agency was poised to announce its findings in 2011, a step almost certain to trigger stricter drinking-water standards to prevent new cancers and deaths.
The chemical industry’s trade association and chief lobbyist, the American Chemistry Council, urged the EPA to wait for more research, a common practice to delay action on toxic chemicals. However, Vincent Cogliano, the soft-spoken head of EPA’s chemical-assessment program, rebuffed the powerful group, writing in an April 2011 letter that “strong” new research was already available.
Ten months later, the EPA reversed itself, quietly posting a notice on the Internet that it was pushing back the release of its findings for at least four more years. Environmentalists were stunned at the reason: The agency would wait for the results of new studies costing $4 million and paid for by the American Chemistry Council.
The EPA decided to wait at the urging of a panel of scientists chosen to give an unbiased review of the chromium findings. But the EPA doesn’t vet these scientists directly, instead handing the task over to outside contractors. An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that several of the panelists had worked on behalf of PG&E to defend the company in the Brockovich lawsuits.
President Obama pledged during his 2008 campaign to halt meddling and interference in government science. The president put restoring integrity to science on his short list of priorities in his first inaugural address, right after fixing the economy and before health care reform. “We'll restore science to its rightful place,” he said.
The story of chromium (VI), full of twists and turns, offers a case study in how the Obama administration has failed to shield science at the EPA from industry influence.
Companies with a stake in chromium have borrowed from the Big Tobacco playbook, using science to create doubt. Ever since the brassy Brockovich knocked on doors in Hinkley to organize a class-action lawsuit, scientists paid by industry have tried to convince the courts and regulators that chromium (VI) poses no health risk.
Some of those scientists ended up on the panel chosen to review the EPA’s chromium findings, the Center for Public Integrity found:
- Three of the five panelists who urged delay had worked on industry's behalf in the Hinkley court cases.
- One of those scientists was retained by PG&E in the company’s ongoing chromium cleanup in Hinkley at the same time he was serving on the EPA panel.
- Another scientist who urged the EPA to wait for the American Chemistry Council studies served as a consultant on those studies.