Senior Trump Environmental Protection Agency officials changed career scientists’ analyses and conclusions in order to support the re-registration of the herbicide dicamba in 2018, according to a report from a federal watchdog published Monday.

The controversial herbicide has skyrocketed in use in recent years after agribusiness giant Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, introduced genetically engineered soybean and cotton seeds that resist the herbicide.  A federal court banned the herbicide last summer because of unprecedented damage to millions of acres of other crops and natural areas after a challenge by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups. 

But just days before the election, the Trump administration, in a press conference in the swing state of Georgia, re-approved dicamba for five years. The decision came despite agency documents showing the damage was worse than previously known.

The EPA Inspector General’s report released Monday focused on the 2018 decision that was vacated by the Ninth Circuit. In the report, the internal agency watchdog found that three senior level staff members did not follow typical operating procedures in the decision-making and violated the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy.

“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,” the report said.

The Biden administration has pledged to restore scientific decision-making to the EPA. In a statement emailed to InvestigateMidwest on Monday, a spokesperson said that the agency will incorporate the inspector general’s recommendations and to ensure decisions are free from political interference. 

“Scientific integrity is a priority for the Biden-Harris Administration,” the spokesperson said. “ Under Administrator Regan’s leadership, EPA has a renewed commitment to protecting human health and the environment by following science and making evidence-based decisions that rely on the input of career scientists.

The Biden EPA also said it stands by the decision to approve dicamba for five more years, made by Trump officials in the final days of the 2020 presidential election. 

The agency assigned 50 employees to work to re-register dicamba after the Ninth Circuit decision. Documents supporting that decision showed that the damage was worse than previously known. Documents show at least 65,000 soybean fields encompassing 4.1 million acres were damaged in 2018 alone, and that figures from Bayer and BASF, which make dicamba, underestimated dicamba damage by 25-fold. 

Bayer and BASF, the other maker of dicamba, have also entered into a $400 million settlement with farmers damaged by the herbicide.

Stephanie Parent, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the EPA’s decisions on dicamba have continually led to widespread damage.

“From my view, EPA always gets input from their scientists, then largely ignores it, as reflected in the millions of acres of drift damage after each EPA approval. It is disappointing the EPA is choosing to continue this experiment and again put at risk farmers growing crops that are not resistant to dicamba, not to mention our natural areas and wildlife that depend on them,” Parent said.

The center, along with other groups including the Center for Food Safety, successfully challenged the 2018 registration and have filed another lawsuit challenging the 2020 decision. 

“It’s great that the Biden Administration recognizes political interference in the Trump EPA’s 2018 dicamba decision,” said Bill Freese, science director for the Center for Food Safety. “But that same EPA illegally registered dicamba again just last year, in flagrant violation of a federal court decision. That the Biden Administration nonetheless chooses to ‘stand by’ continuing dicamba devastation to farmers across the country makes a total mockery of its supposed scientific integrity policy.”

The 13-page report highlighted three significant issues with the 2018 decision. These included:

  • Senior management and policy makers decided to use plant height, rather than visual injury, as a measure of dicamba’s harm to plants. This contradicted EPA staff scientists’ recommendations.
  • Senior officials directed staff to use dicamba damage figures from registrants, rather than from other sources, resulting in the damage to be “substantially understated.”
  • Senior management ordered scientists to rewrite their benefits and impact analysis with a new outline and delete several sections of relevant information.

The report said that one EPA senior official said that management doesn’t have to follow the science in its decisions.

“[W]e cannot alter science, but we do not always make policy on it,” the official said, according to the report.

But that is a clear violation, the inspector general found. 

“The EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy states that reviews by Agency managers and other leadership should be based only on scientific quality considerations. The policy also prohibits managers and leaders from altering scientific data, findings, or professional opinions or from knowingly misrepresenting or downplaying areas of scientific uncertainty.”

The report reinforces a letter sent in March to EPA employees by Michal Freedhoff, acting assistant administrator in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention of the EPA, that said the EPA had undue political influence in the 2018 dicamba decision. 

In a separate response to the inspector general, Freedhoff wrote that senior officials in the Trump administration knew they were violating the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy in the dicamba decision.  

“The dicamba incident described in this Draft Report did not occur due to a lack of awareness of or training on the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy. It occurred because OCSPP’s past senior leadership consciously chose to advance a policy outcome in a manner inconsistent with the Scientific Integrity Policy,” Freedhoff wrote.

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