energy & environment

Koch alumnus at EPA worked on toxic chemical despite recusal plan

David Dunlap participated in discussions related to formaldehyde after he had informed ethics officials he intended to steer clear of the issue.

Environmental Protection Agency

The Trump administration official leading the Environmental Protection Agency’s research office took part in conversations about a health assessment of formaldehyde even while planning to recuse himself from the issue because of his previous work for one of the country's biggest producers of the toxic substance.

David Dunlap, a former chemicals expert for Koch Industries, participated in email discussions related to the assessment at least twice after he had informed agency ethics officials that he intended to steer clear of the issue, according to documents POLITICO obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. He finally signed his recusal in December, on the same day EPA officially killed the assessment after blocking its release for more than a year.

Independent watchdogs said Dunlap's involvement raises concerns about whether he improperly influenced EPA's actions on formaldehyde, which is widely used in wood composites, building materials, insulation, fabrics and glue. As deputy assistant administrator for science policy, Dunlap is the top political official in EPA’s Office of Research and Development — a post that allowed him to avoid the Senate confirmation process.

“Despite the fact he knew a draft recusal was being created, he stepped into an area where he knew he had a conflict of interest,” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the independent Project on Government Oversight.

“The timing of this doesn’t pass the sniff test. It really does appear he wanted to weigh in on the formaldehyde issue for as long as he could,” he added.

House and Senate Democrats have already asked EPA’s top ethics official to look into whether Dunlap violated his recusal statement by overseeing the "prioritization" process that led to EPA dropping the formaldehyde assessment. They pointed to staff comments in a probe of the process conducted by the government's independent watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, as well as internal emails they obtained.

However, ethics experts say that because Dunlap's recusal was voluntary, officials would have little recourse even if they determined he had violated his agreement.

Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia-Pacific is one of the nation’s largest producers of formaldehyde and has worked with the American Chemistry Council, the industry's lobbying group, for years to stymie the assessment.

POLITICO reported last year that the assessment was poised to find that the levels of formaldehyde that most Americans breathe in daily puts them at risk for leukemia and other ailments. Such a finding by EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, whose assessments are relied upon by states and countries around the world, could have opened Georgia-Pacific and other companies to major legal liabilities.

When Dunlap joined EPA last fall, ethics officials concluded that the formaldehyde assessment wasn't a "specific party matter" that ethics laws and the Trump administration's ethics pledge would bar him from. But records show that Dunlap quickly agreed to voluntarily recuse himself from involvement with it to avoid an appearance of bias.

On Oct. 30, 2018, the director of EPA’s Ethics Law Office, Justina Fugh, sent Dunlap a draft statement that included the formaldehyde recusal, instructing him to “please review the recusal and designate someone to be your ‘screener.’ Then please print out the recusal on office letterhead, sign and date it and return it to us.”

But Dunlap did not sign it until Dec. 19, and internal emails show that during those intervening weeks Dunlap engaged with colleagues on the topic at least twice.

On Nov. 15, staffers in EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations forwarded Dunlap an email titled “Formaldehyde IRIS Assessment Appropriations Language” that contained an attachment. Dunlap forwarded that information to Nancy Beck, then the top political official in EPA’s chemical safety office, writing: "As promised. I may also have some additional language that could be helpful. I will look for it and deliver before Thanksgiving.”

The attached document, which EPA's press office provided to POLITICO, described the years-long debate over the formaldehyde assessment and included descriptions of previous provisions passed by Congress relating to the assessment.

On Nov. 14, the top career official in Dunlap’s office forwarded him information about a meeting to discuss recent industry-funded research on formaldehyde that was being organized for top IRIS program officials by the American Chemistry Council, which has fiercely fought the formaldehyde assessment. Dunlap replied, “Thanks. I was aware. Have a good time.” Ethics experts say even this level of involvement would constitute a violation of the recusal.

EPA spokesperson Michael Abboud did not dispute either of the interactions. But he declined to respond to questions about whether career staffers had been informed of Dunlap’s planned recusal at the time, or whether his involvement was appropriate. Dunlap did not respond to a request for comment.

“Although not required by federal ethics law or regulation, Mr. Dunlap voluntarily recused himself from participating in matters related to the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessment on formaldehyde, which is not a specific party matter and therefore not subject to the terms of the Trump Ethics Pledge," Abboud said in a statement. "Nevertheless, to avoid even the appearance of any loss of impartiality, Mr. Dunlap chose to recuse himself given his previous involvement in this issue while with his former employer.”

EPA officially killed the IRIS assessment of formaldehyde on Dec. 19 — the same date that Dunlap signed his ethics paperwork.

That decision to end the assessment came about through a “prioritization process” led by Dunlap that limited the number of chemicals that program offices could ask be assessed. EPA officials said this process was aimed at making sure the IRIS program was focused on the most important studies for the agency’s regulatory offices, which set limits for air and water pollution.

The Office of Research and Development went through one round of prioritization in August 2018, which maintained the formaldehyde assessment as a priority, but then initiated a second round after Dunlap arrived at the agency in November. As documented by the Government Accountability Office, it was that second round, spearheaded by Dunlap and conducted by Trump political appointees, that saw formaldehyde dropped as a priority.

However, eight months later, after declining to name formaldehyde as one of its priorities for IRIS review, the agency’s chemical safety office named formaldehyde one of its top 20 “high priority” chemicals for assessment. That development effectively accomplished industry’s goal of moving the assessment of formaldehyde out of the hands of the independent scientists in the IRIS program and into the EPA chemical safety office. At the time, the head of that office was Beck, who had spent years as a top expert for the American Chemistry Council and was a longtime critic of the IRIS program.