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A new leak in the series of documents known as the “poison papers,” which were provided by whistleblower William Sanjour, show that unless regulatory bodies such as the EPA have real political backing, they will not act in the public interest. We speak to Jonathan Latham of the Bioscience Resource Project
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News from Winnipeg, Canada.
Earlier this year The Real News reported on a trove of documents published in late 2017 known as the Poison Papers. These extensive files demonstrate that the EPA failed to fulfill its mandate long before Donald Trump was elected as United States president. The Poison Papers were analyzed and published by the Center for Media and Democracy and Dr. Jonathan Latham. They are a compilation of over 20,000 documents obtained from federal agencies and chemical manufacturers via open records requests in public interest litigation. They include internal scientific studies and summaries of studies, internal memos and reports, meeting minutes, strategic discussions, and sworn testimonies.
The poison papers were recently augmented by a collection of documents from EPA whistleblower William Sanjour. Mr. Sanjour worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for over 30 years. Now here to discuss the Sanjour documents with us is Dr. Jonathan Latham himself. He is the co-founder and executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project and editor of the Independent Science News website. He holds a master’s degree in crop genetics and a Ph.D. in virology, and he joins us today from Auckland, New Zealand. Thank you for joining us again, Dr. Latham.
JONATHAN LATHAM: Hi, Dimitri.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, Dr. Latham, I understand that Mr. Sanjour’s documents reveal alarming information about the investigation into how the EPA knowingly approved harmful products- including Agent Orange, produced by Monsanto- based on fraudulent science. Please tell us what the Sanjour documents reveal about the handling of that investigation.
JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, you know, the Sanjour documents- actually, Bill Sanjour worked in the hazardous waste division. The poison papers have a lot of information about Agent Orange and how the the EPA was informed, at least by 1970, that dioxins were incredibly toxic and that companies knew well before that. But nothing was done about it until Carol Van Strum, who was a campaigner, essentially organized a lot of nonprofits and so forth to try to get the herbicide 245T banned.
What we know from the poison papers is that those companies, although they argue that there was no human health hazard, they had actually received information and tested themselves in such a way that- they were told, for example, by German chemical companies that dioxins were too toxic even to do research on. So they got a letter from from a company called Boehringer in 1964, and that letter basically said they’d stopped their research just from using dioxins even to find out how how toxic they were, presumably because those scientists were getting, becoming injured from the use of dioxins. Dow also knew that its workers were becoming sick who were making dioxins. So they companies themselves had a lot of information that, you know, should have led to the removal, and even the- not even the use in the first place of dioxins.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, I also understand that the Sanjour documents reveal that EPA officials lied to poor and rural communities about the dangers of hazardous waste. Could you talk to us about those revelations?
JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, you know, the EPA concluded that they had an obligation to find sites for the disposal of hazardous wastes. And it doesn’t appear that- you know, what it seems to me is that they made that requirement up. They did not actually need to find those sites, but they acted as if they did. And so they ended up acting as agents for the waste industry, trying to convince rural communities to accept incinerators and landfills. And so, so instead of working to protect the public interest and the environment from leakages from landfills, for example- which they knew were inevitable- they basically ignored those concerns. And so people ended up, you know- and as part of the Superfund project, basically taking taking material from one Superfund site to another Superfund site, which would then leak in turn. So basically, you know, they were taking material from one place where they knew it would leak out to another place where they would leak out.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And so how did the EPA management react to the whistleblowing by Mr. Sanjour?
JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, they, they basically harassed him. They tried to find reasons to fire him, and he was very, very careful in not providing them with those reasons, so that ultimately they had difficulty and failed, ultimately, to get rid of him. But they did move him into positions from which basically he had no power.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And what- other than the revelations we’ve discussed, what do you regard as the key revelations emerging from Mr. Sanjour’s documents?
JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, what you see is the inability of regulators to protect the public interest when they don’t have the political support to do that. You know, so the waste management industry made a lot of money from the creation of hazardous waste and the production of hazardous waste, and the moving of hazardous waste. And they made this money because of specific ways that the EPA carried out its mandate. So what they did is they exerted influence in all kinds of different ways to get the agency to, to behave in ways that would make them a lot of money.
But the ultimate, you know, kind of interpretation here is that EPA does not feel empowered as an agency to actually go up against big polluters. You know, this is a major concern here, is that what people don’t seem to understand- and I understand why people don’t understand it, because it’s obscured by a lot of people- but unless regulatory agencies are empowered to to act decisively to halt pollution, or to refuse permits for toxic chemicals, and so on and so forth, then that what happens is that those agencies are forced to basically operate on behalf of polluters. And so they become complicit in pollution rather than acting in the public interest. Because ultimately, they know the EPA and the current political climate, and the political climate that has existed ever since EPA began, that they do not have the power to find Monsanto a billion dollars, or deny approval for, you, know the next gee whiz product. So they don’t feel they have the political backing. Because you know, a decision to ban Roundup, or to ban atrazine, or to ban one of these chemicals would require approval at the highest political level, because they’ll all end up in a fight in Washington. And unless they have that political backing, they will not even enter the ring.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been speaking to Dr. Jonathan Latham about important new documents supplementing the Poison Papers from EPA whistleblower William Sanjour. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dr. Latham.
JONATHAN LATHAM: Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News.