The Trump administration has placed a former Koch Industries official in charge of research that will shape how the government regulates a class of toxic chemicals contaminating millions of Americans’ drinking water — an issue that could have major financial repercussions for his former employer.
David Dunlap, a deputy in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, is playing a key role as the agency decides how to protect people from the pollution left behind at hundreds of military bases and factories across the country.
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President Donald Trump has not nominated anyone to run the office. That effectively allows Dunlap to avoid the Senate confirmation process while overseeing a central part of EPA’s work that could impose cleanup costs on companies that have used the chemicals, including major Koch subsidiary Georgia-Pacific. The paper and pulp conglomerate is already facing at least one class-action lawsuit related to the chemicals.
Previously undisclosed documents obtained by POLITICO show Dunlap began working on the issue almost immediately upon arriving at EPA in October. He had spent the previous eight years as Koch Industries’ lead expert on water and chemical regulations, a position that typically includes helping companies to limit regulatory restrictions and liability for cleanups.
Democratic lawmakers and environmentalist say the prevalence of administration officials who came from the chemicals industry contributes to its hands-off approach to the chemicals, which are appearing in drinking water supplies across the country to rising public alarm. Known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, the chemicals have been linked with kidney and testicular cancer, as well as other ailments.
Both Republicans and Democrats have urged a stronger approach from acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler — who faces a confirmation vote in the Senate Environment Committee Tuesday — but he has stopped short of using all the tools in the agency’s arsenal.
Just last week, POLITICO reported the agency has decided against setting drinking water limits for the two most well-understood chemicals in the class in a forthcoming plan for the chemicals, and the new documents show Dunlap was involved in high-level meetings preceding that decision.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Dunlap’s hiring adds to his concerns about the Trump administration’s handling of the issue.
“Coming on the heels of Mr. Wheeler’s failure to commit to setting a drinking water standard for PFAS, this potential conflict of interest within the agency paints a bleak picture about EPA’s priorities on chemical safety with respect to these particular substances. I look forward to learning more about Mr. Dunlap’s role in the development of EPA’s PFAS management plan,” Carper said in a statement.
Dunlap’s ethics agreement bars him from “participating in any particular matter involving specific parties” related to Koch Industries, but the agency’s ethics officials have typically taken a narrow interpretation of such prohibitions. And while Dunlap voluntarily recused himself from work on formaldehyde, which Georgia-Pacific produces, the agreement includes no mention of PFAS.
Koch Industries spokesperson David Dziok said that Dunlap worked on a broad set of issues related to water and chemicals during his time with the company, but that “PFAs were not part of the portfolio he managed.”
Dunlap did not respond to a request for comment. EPA did not answer specific questions about Dunlap’s involvement in the agency’s work and his potential conflict of interest.
Dunlap’s calendars, obtained by POLITICO under the Freedom of Information Act, show he participated in at least nine PFAS meetings in his first six weeks on the job, including an Oct. 22 briefing with Wheeler, chief of staff Ryan Jackson and other top political officials. At the time, agency leaders were writing a wide-ranging chemical management plan in which they decided not to set a drinking water standard for the two specific chemicals — PFOA and PFOS. That plan has been under review at the White House since December.
While those two older chemicals are no longer used in the U.S., EPA estimates that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 similar chemical compounds, used in everything from nonstick cookware to water resistant jackets to microwave popcorn bags. Industry has argued that the newer compounds are less dangerous to human health, but scientists say there is reason to worry that the entire class of PFAS compounds poses a risk. Public health advocates are pushing EPA to regulate the chemicals as a class, arguing that evaluating each one individually will take decades, if it happens at all.
The calendars also show Dunlap helping to shape EPA’s approach to these newer compounds that are still in use. He participated in an Oct. 31 call with career staff in his division on two chemicals, GenX and PFBS, for which they were preparing health assessments. Research has shown those new chemicals can also be dangerous, and that those dangers may be greater when people are exposed to them in combination with other chemicals, as they often occur in drinking water. Environmental groups have said the chemicals should be evaluated together to account for those risks, but EPA took the opposite approach when it released the GenX and PFBS health assessments two weeks later.
Then on Nov. 5, Dunlap was scheduled to join a call with staff scientific leads to discuss the next slate of chemicals for which they would prepare health assessments. Dunlap’s former employer has a stake in which chemicals EPA focuses on: A company spokesperson said Georgia-Pacific may still be using PFAS in its products, as it has in the past, but she would not say which specific chemicals it uses. There are very few legal requirements for companies to tell the public or regulators which chemicals they use in their processes and at which factories.
In response to questions about Dunlap’s role, an EPA spokesperson said, “Addressing PFAS is an Agency-wide effort with David Ross, the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water, serving as the EPA staff lead on addressing PFAS.”
However, the research overseen by Dunlap lays the groundwork for any regulatory decisions Ross is coordinating. EPA officials have underscored the importance of research to their PFAS work in a number of public presentations, including briefings to the agency’s Science Advisory Board and at meetings in affected communities.
Georgia-Pacific, which manufactures products like Brawny paper towels and Dixie cups, has not only used PFAS in some of its food packaging products, but has also owned facilities where the chemicals were disposed, creating a cleanup liability that could prove costly.
The company is already facing a class-action lawsuit from citizens in the town of Parchment, Mich., where last summer state officials discovered the chemicals in drinking water at concentrations as much as 26 times higher than EPA’s recommended limit. That contamination was traced to a paper mill that Georgia-Pacific previously had a stake in.
Georgia-Pacific spokesperson Karen Cole said the company believes that “only a very small percentage of our food wrap and related products — if any” contain the chemicals today, and noted that PFOA and PFOS were phased out of use in food wrappers “several years ago.” She said Georgia-Pacific does not apply the PFAS itself, but gets paper from a supplier that in some cases has previously treated it with PFAS.
“We are currently evaluating past manufacturing practices to better understand any potential previous use of these materials,” she said by email.
In his LinkedIn profile, Dunlap describes himself as the “lead and subject matter expert” on water and chemicals issues for Koch’s entire suite of companies during his eight years there. Even if he did not directly manage the company’s work on PFAS, it would be “hard to believe that he had not touched any decisions on PFAS with that broad of a scope of responsibilities,” said Erik Olson, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council’s public health work.
Olson said Dunlap’s oversight of EPA’s research on the chemicals raises red flags. “You want an independent, hardheaded scientific review of these issues; you don’t want somebody who is already taking the industry party line,” he said.
According to federal disclosures, Koch Industries spent at least $90,000 in 2018 lobbying on issues related to chemicals. The American Chemistry Council, the chemicals industry’s largest lobbying group, which Georgia-Pacific has worked through in the past to influence policy on toxic chemicals, spent $9 million last year lobbying lawmakers, EPA and other agencies, including on PFAS issues.
The Food and Drug Administration governs the use of chemicals in food wrappers, and has approved 21 PFAS blends for such use, according to Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund who has conducted research on paper mills’ use of the compounds. But he said the greater liability that paper companies like Georgia-Pacific may face comes from manufacturing waste that contains the chemicals, such as leftover paper trimmings.
That waste can end up in landfills or compost that is used to grow fruits and vegetables, Neltner said.
“There’s a legitimate threat there and, from my perspective, the conflicts of interest that [Dunlap] has having worked as a regulatory compliance director at Georgia-Pacific raises questions about whether he can make those objective decisions or should be recused,” he said.
Moreover, Georgia-Pacific may well have cleanup responsibility for other sites like the one in Michigan. During the time it operated the manufacturing plant, from 2000 to 2015, Georgia-Pacific closed a landfill that had also been used by other companies, including at least one that the company says it believes used a 3M-patented PFAS. The class-action lawsuit filed by citizens alleges that Georgia-Pacific did not properly close the landfill to prevent the chemicals from leaching into nearby water. Georgia-Pacific is currently working with the state of Michigan to trace the chemicals’ movement through groundwater.
Under the Superfund law, a company can be held liable for cleanup even if it wasn’t primarily responsible for the contamination.