EPA managers intruded on dicamba decision making

Three mid-level EPA officials altered scientific documents to support their 2018 decision to keep the weedkiller dicamba in use, reported the office of inspector general at EPA on Monday. Their decision, to extend registration of the herbicide for two years, was overturned by a federal appeals court because the EPA ignored or underestimated the risks associated with dicamba.

EPA scientists told the OIG that senior managers in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) were more involved in the dicamba review than was usual for a pesticide registration decision. “This led to senior-level changes to or omissions from scientific documents, including omissions of some conclusions addressing stakeholder risks,” said the OIG. The actions “left the decision legally vulnerable,” said the report, pointing to the appellate decision last June.

The Trump administration announced a new five-year EPA approval of dicamba with additional safeguards a week before the 2020 presidential election. Andrew Wheeler, then EPA administrator, said the agency examined new scientific material and considered comments from stakeholders before issuing the new registration.

The EPA said it stands by the 2020 decision “made with the input of career scientists and managers” and it was taking steps to assure pesticide decisions are based on science. “The political interference that occurred with the 2018 dicamba decision happened despite the best efforts of EPA’s career scientists and managers to recommend a different approach,” said a spokesperson.

“In our interviews, OPP (Office of Pesticide Programs) divisional scientists provided examples where scientific analyses were changed to support senior officials’ policy decisions,” said the OIG report. In one instance, senior management decided to use plant height, rather than recommended approach of visual signs of plant injury, to evaluate off-field movement of dicamba. “This direction by senior management changed the division’s scientific conclusions.”

In another instance, a senior OCSPP official gave scientists “an outline for rewriting their benefits and impact analysis document. The outline removed several sections of the original document which the scientists said were relevant based on the analysis they completed,” said the OIG.

“Multiple scientists said they felt directed to change the science to support a certain decision and that the reasons for senior managers’ requested changes were not documented.”

EPA policy says reviews by managers should be based solely on considerations of scientific quality. Managers and leaders are prohibited from altering scientific data, findings or professional opinions or knowingly misrepresenting or downplaying areas of scientific uncertainty.

Farmers quickly embraced dicamba after it was introduced in 2017 as a potent new chemical tool against invasive weeds in fields planted with cotton and soybeans genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide. Just as quickly, complaints arose that dicamba evaporated too easily from where it was sprayed and wafted onto nearby crops, trees and plants that had no protection against damage. In February 2020, a federal jury awarded $265 million to a Missouri peach grower for losses on his 1,000-acre orchard.

The OIG recommended stricter adherence by the OCSPP to EPA’s rules on scientific integrity, including a requirement for senior officials to document and explain any changes they make in scientific documents and to provide training each year on the principles of scientific integrity.

All of the officials cited in the OIG report were listed by title and not identified by name. Each was described as a former holder of the office.

The OIG report, “EPA deviated from typical procedures in its 2018 dicamba pesticide registration report,” is available here.