Trump officials worried about 'public relations nightmare' over contaminated drinking water near military bases

Key Points
  • Trump administration officials are worried about a Health and Human Services report on a class of chemicals that could be a "public relations nightmare."
  • The HHS study indicated that the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, present a risk to health at levels far lower than EPA previously determined.
  • The chemicals have already been found in drinking water and groundwater at levels beyond what EPA says is safe near 126 U.S. military locations.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

Emails among U.S. government officials show the Trump administration trying to manage a potentially damaging report on a class of chemicals found to have polluted water supplies near U.S. military installations.

The exchanges, sent in January, reveal officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Management and Budget worrying over a yet-to-be-released study from the Department of Health and Human Services. The draft report from HHS indicated that exposure to the chemicals in question is unsafe in far lower amounts than EPA previously determined.

One OMB official warned of a "public relations nightmare" when the report is released. The emails were unearthed through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Three and a half months later, the report has yet to be made public.

The chemicals, widely known as PFOS and PFOA, were found in drinking water or groundwater in quantities that exceeded amounts deemed safe by EPA near 126 military facilities, the Department of Defense said in a study in May. The perflourinated compounds, present in a firefighting foam used by the military, have been linked in some studies to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer, as well as to fertility problems and developmental delays in fetuses and children, according to the Defense Department report.

The draft HHS report alarmed administration officials because it concluded there is a minimal risk associated with exposure to the chemicals at levels as low as 12 parts per trillion.

Those concerns are laid out in an email from James Herz, associate director for Natural Resources, Energy and Science at White House Office of Management and Budget, to EPA Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves.

Michael Phelps on the quest to 'Save Water'
Michael Phelps on the quest to 'Save Water'

"The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these new numbers is going to be huge. The impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful," an unidentified official from the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs wrote in an message forwarded by Herz to Greaves.

"We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be," the official added, referring to HHS's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

In a subsequent email, Richard Yamada, the deputy assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Research and Development, said the estimate HHS uses is "10 fold lower than most." He added that he is "not sure our scientists agree."

Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, suggested OMB serve as a "neutral arbiter" to "step up and coordinate interagency review of this important guidance document before it is released." She said this was common in the George W. Bush Administration, but the Obama White House typically "let each agency do their own thing."

Earlier emails among EPA staffers, also provided by the Union of Concerned Scientists, indicate HHS staff held calls with officials from EPA and OMB to discuss the study and differences in approaches among agencies.

Officials at HHS and EPA did not immediately return requests for comment.