Washington (CNN)The Trump administration's recent decision against banning a widely used pesticide that may be linked to health concerns came as the Environmental Protection Agency promised a "new day" to the agriculture industry, and a "reset" between business and its government regulator.
EPA documents fuel criticism that politics played part in pesticide decision
As the EPA neared a decision on the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, top agency officials met with a farming industry group, according to newly released internal documents.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt "stressed that this is a new day, a new future, for a common sense approach to environmental protection," according to notes from the meeting circulated among his staff.
Another Trump administration appointee, Don Benton, said at the meeting the administration was building "new relationships" with the industry, including "a relationship based on partnerships not on regulations and enforcement."
The documents, obtained and first reported by The New York Times using the Freedom of Information Act, provide an inside look at how the regulatory agency considered a petition to ban the chemical from agricultural uses. In 2000, due to health concerns, the EPA had banned chlorpyrifos from residential uses, but allowed big farms to continue to use the pesticide.
Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council presented a docket of scientific data associating the pesticide's use with cognitive and other health concerns among farm workers and their children. The EPA began a review.
In March, the agency decided not to ban the pesticide, allowing it to continue to be used in certain amounts on specific crops. EPA concluded "the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved," and called for "further evaluation of the science ... to achieve greater certainty as to whether the potential exists for adverse neurodevelopmental effects to occur from current human exposures to chlorpyrifos."
Dow Chemical, the maker of chlorpyrifos, did not respond to a request for comment. But it has previously said it "stands by the safety of chlorpyrifos" and "will continue to support the safety of the registered uses of this product."
But NRDC and other critics said the EPA documents show "a real playing of politics with children's health."
"The science was sending EPA in a very distinct direction for protecting children's health, which was the ban on agricultural uses," said NRDC senior scientist Miriam Rotkin-Ellman. "It's only politics that's standing in the way of those protections."
The agency, however, said the documents are "out of context."
"We continue to examine the science surrounding chlorpyifos (sic), while taking into account USDA's scientific concerns with methodology used by the previous administration," EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham said in an email.
The documents indicate that several weeks before the pesticide decision was announced, career EPA staffers and the politically appointed leadership met to discuss the options.
EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson emerged believing career staff wanted the pesticide banned. In an email, he suggested he told them to prepare for the ban to be denied.
"They are trying to strong arm us. I scared them Friday," he wrote a colleague, apparently describing the career employees' response.
A few hours later, he wrote back: "I'm kidding. ... I think I did scare them or surprise them Friday."
Career staffers "know where this is headed and they are documenting it well," Jackson added.