David Dunlap, a deputy in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development, has played a lead role in crafting the EPA’s policies on several toxic chemicals found in drinking water, raising concerns about conflicts of interest due to his previous work at Koch Industries.
Politico on Monday first reported that Dunlap has helped spearhead the EPA’s policies on a class of chemicals linked to cancer: perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Dunlap was hired in October after working for the chemical giant Koch Industries for more than eight years as a lead expert on water and chemical regulations.
Dunlap attended at least nine meetings on the substances during his first six weeks at the agency, according to copies of his calendars obtained by Politico through a Freedom of Information Act request. At the same time, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was deciding if the agency would choose to regulate some of the most notable chemicals in the PFAS class.
Politico reported last week that Wheeler ultimately decided not to set a limit for two of the toxic chemicals that have been found in drinking water ― perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, and another called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. The decision has not yet been made public, but the calendars show Dunlap was involved in the decision-making process shortly after he started at the agency.
A bipartisan group of 20 senators issued a forceful letter urging Wheeler to reconsider this week, saying a failure to regulate the substances “would be a major setback to states and affected communities.”
“We urge you to develop enforceable federal drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS,” the lawmakers, led by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), wrote.
Dunlap’s role doesn’t require Senate confirmation, but as Politico notes, the president has not appointed anyone to run the EPA’s research office, effectively giving Dunlap broad power to work on the agency’s policies. The agency has an ethics requirement that would prohibit him from working on anything “involving specific parties” related to his work at Koch, but it doesn’t appear he’s barred from work on PFAS.
Koch told Politico that the chemicals were not part of his work during his time at the corporation.
Any significant regulation of chemicals like PFAS could require companies that produce them to assume liability for cleanup costs. Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch, has used the chemicals in some products it produces and has owned plants where the chemicals were disposed.
The EPA celebrated Dunlap’s past work at Koch in a statement upon his hiring, saying he would play a “pivotal” role in the EPA’s mission.
“As a chemical engineer, Mr. Dunlap has worked on environmental issues for nearly 30 years with a focus on assessing risk. His extensive experience on regulatory issues will be pivotal in our mission to protect human health and the environment,” Ryan Jackson, the EPA’s chief of staff, told Courthouse News Service after Dunlap was hired.
Politico’s reporting has set off alarm among public health advocacy groups. The Environmental Working Group said that it hoped Dunlap would follow the EPA mission statement “instead of the demands of the chemical industry.”
“When Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, installs a former Koch executive to clean up toxic chemicals in drinking water, the chances of it happening are about as likely as snowfall in San Diego,” Scott Faber, the group’s senior vice president of government affairs, said in a statement. “We hope both Wheeler and Dunlap will follow EPA’s mission statement instead of the demands of the chemical industry and adopt a health-protective drinking water standard that will reduce PFAS in the drinking water serving millions of people.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified PFOS. It is perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.