Letter to Mitch Daniels re: OMB/OIRA's thwarting of EPA's Planned Public Health Warning

January 8, 2003

The Honorable Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.
Director
Office of Management and Budget
Washington, D.C. 20050

Dear Director Daniels:

A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, "White House Office Blocked EPA’s Asbestos Cleanup Plan," by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Andrew Schneider (12/29/02, p. A1), alleges that your office thwarted the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) plan to declare a public health emergency in Libby, Montana, and alert Americans nationwide regarding the dangers of Zonolite insulation, which contains highly cancerous fibers and is present in 15 to 35 million American homes.

This article – reportedly supported by nine file boxes of information received from the EPA under a Freedom of Information Act request – related the investigation, extensive internal debate, and tough questioning conducted by EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Marianne Horinko, head of the Superfund Program, prior to their decision to declare a public health emergency regarding Zonolite insulation in Libby on April 5, 2002. The "Libby Declaration" was to be accompanied by a nationwide alert regarding the presence and danger of Zonolite insulation in homes across the nation. The article claims that the EPA’s intention to issue both the declaration and accompanying national alert were thwarted by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and by OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), headed by John Graham. When questioned by the reporter, both OMB and OIRA refused to provide an explanation for doing so.

Here are the disturbing facts, as we know them from this article:

  • Millions of households throughout the nation are contaminated with Zonolite. Memos from the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry repeatedly cite an estimate that between 15 and 35 million homes throughout America are insulated with Zonolite. Government extrapolations and interviews with former W.R. Grace Zonolite salesmen indicate that Zonolite insulation exists in 800,000 homes in Illinois, 700,000 in Michigan, and 380,000 in Missouri.
  • The asbestos in question is far more cancerous than "normal" asbestos. Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonologist who has worked with NASA and the Air Force, has demonstrated that tremolite (the asbestos fiber found in Zonolite) is "10 times as carcinogenic as chrysotile (the more prevalent form of asbestos), and probably 100 times more likely to produce mesothelioma (a ‘fast moving cancer of the lung’s lining’) than chrysotile." According to the article, the EPA has documented "how even minor disruptions of the material by moving boxes, sweeping the floor or doing repairs in attics can generate asbestos fibers." W.R. Grace, the company that provided the tremolite in Zonolite, has settled hundreds of suits that claimed death or illness from exposure to Zonolite.
  • EPA intended to declare a public health emergency and issue a national warning on Zonolite, but was thwarted by OMB/OIRA’s directive from doing so. EPA Administrator Whitman told her staff to move forward with the emergency declaration for Libby, Montana and national public notification. News releases were written and rewritten, lists of Governors to be contacted and politicians to notify were compiled. The White House acknowledged its active involvement in the issue, and opposed the declaration and public notification. Specifically, the article claims that "it was the White House budget office’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs that derailed the Libby declaration."
  • OIRA refuses to explain the basis of its decision. When contacted by the author regarding its role, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) spokesperson Amy Call referred questions to the EPA. Repeated requests by Mr. Schneider for interviews with you or anyone else involved in OMB’s decision were denied. Both OMB and EPA refused Freedom of Information requests by the author for documents to and from OMB concerning the matter.

The allegations in this article deeply trouble Public Citizen. Beside the significant danger posed to the public’s health by effectively blocking the EPA Zonolite warning, this incident illustrates the significance of the serious concerns we have raised in recent months and during John Graham’s confirmation process regarding the willingness of the Administration to put the interests of industry over public safety and to bully federal agencies into actions contrary to their statutory obligations.

In light of these circumstances it would be best for you to reassure the public by providing an explanation about the following issues:

  • Under what authority, if any, was OMB/OIRA acting to intercede in EPA’s decision making process and to strongly recommend to EPA that it not issue the emergency declaration and public notification? Neither the emergency declaration nor the public notification appear to be matters subject to OMB/OIRA review under the Paperwork Reduction Act. Nor do they appear to be rulemaking matters, over which OMB/OIRA lacks statutory authority but has been given review powers by E.O. 12866.
  • What scientific evidence did OMB/OIRA rely on in recommending to EPA not to make the emergency declaration and public notification? As you have long advocated, decision making on matters of public health should be science-based. Yet OMB/OIRA apparently challenged the scientific conclusions of the expert agency assigned by law to assess risks to public health. Decisions of this magnitude must be made in a manner that ensures transparency and accountability. OMB/OIRA’s secret, behind-the-scenes intervention in this matter is especially troubling, and we call on you to make public the basis for OMB/OIRA’s objections to notifying the public of this public health danger.
  • The article strongly suggests that your office brought pressure to bear upon EPA not to make the emergency declaration and public notification. Do you deny that OMB/OIRA applied pressure to EPA to force it to change its planned course of action?
  • Did you or your staff meet or consult with W.R. Grace or other insulation industry officials or representatives regarding this contemplated emergency declaration and public notification? Because in this instance a "rule" was not being contemplated, records of who OMB/OIRA officials met with when determining a course of action are not available. If you did meet, please provide a summary of those meetings, including with whom OMB/OIRA met.
  • What role did the Administration’s support for legislation to limit the liability of asbestos manufacturers play in OMB/OIRA deliberations on this matter? As you know, asbestos liability likely will be under consideration in Congress this year and news reports have indicated that the administration is trying to determine how to deal with the matter given Vice President Cheney’s previous position as CEO at Halliburton, a company that is the subject of a large number asbestos liability claims.

We cannot overstate the gravity of our concern over this matter. Despite EPA’s views to the contrary, OMB/OIRA has muzzled the responsible government agency, essentially forcing it to suppress information about a serious cancer problem that poses a risk to millions of American families. Graham’s secret role in this decision is the antithesis of transparent, accountable, and responsible government, which he claims to support. We urge the Administration not to hide behind closed doors. Please answer these questions and let the American people know why OMB/OIRA interceded to stop EPA from declaring a public health emergency and warning the nation about the dangers of Zonolite.

More important, we urge you to authorize EPA to issue its intended public notification and discontinue your objections that serve to benefit asbestos companies. As William Ruckelshaus, former EPA Administrator under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, said when he learned of this problem, "Your first obligation is to tell the people living in these homes of the possible danger. They need the information so they can decide what actions are best for their family. What right does the government have to conceal these dangers?"

Sincerely,

Joan Claybrook
President

Frank Clemente
Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch

 

cc: John Graham, Adminstrator, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs