In 2017, staff at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) were getting ready to publish research revealing two pesticides (malathion and chlorpyrifos) routinely used in the US were jeopardizing the existence of more than 1,000 endangered species.
This damning conclusion followed years-long analysis and had the potential to lead to tighter restrictions on the use of pesticides. Only it never saw the light of day. That is because of actions taken by top officials at the Department of the Interior (DOI) – including then deputy secretary, David Bernhardt – The New York Times reported Tuesday.
According to the Times, Bernhardt was minimally involved in the research until October 2017, when he "abruptly" summoned staff to a string of meetings. During these meetings, staff were told to drop the old process and adopt a less stringent set of guidelines, as per the recommendations of (wait for it) Big Pesticide.
The Times references more than 84,000 pages of Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents accessed through the Freedom of Information Act. Documents that also reveal "repeated contacts in early 2017" between the administration and those in the pesticide business pushing for looser restrictions on chemical use.
The Center for Biological Diversity came to very similar conclusions following their own (separate) investigations.
"It was highly unusual for Bernhardt to have six meetings with Fish and Wildlife in a week, but he was on a mission to kill these scientific assessments once he saw the facts about how chlorpyrifos use is a death sentence for endangered species," Lori Ann Burd, the Environmental Health Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. Burd also serves on the EPA's pesticide program federal advisory committee.
According to former EPA official Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, who ran the office in charge of toxic chemicals and pesticides at the time, the position taken by Bernhardt is reflective of a broader trend seen across the government since Trump's inauguration.
"It is certainly similar to the pattern we saw in toxic chemicals as well, where the regulated industry had a more sympathetic ear in the new administration," she told the Times.
But Gary Frazer, the top endangered species official at the FWS, has said the change in policy was "entirely appropriate". He told the Times, "There was no arm-twisting of any kind."
It's worth pointing out that prior to his career in the White House, Bernhardt – then deputy secretary, now acting secretary – served as an oil industry lobbyist and lawyer. In this role, he took on cases that actively sought to roll back endangered species protections.
This means the man currently heading the department responsible for managing the agency in charge of the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has publically attempted to undermine the authority of the ESA in a past life. And if his actions in office are anything to go by, he is continuing his mission to de-regulate what he describes as an "unnecessary regulatory burden" on US taxpayers and companies.
Hearings to confirm Bernhardt's nomination as Interior Secretary are due to take place on Thursday.
[H/T: The New York Times]