The sick and tired West

Bush weakens public health


Here's the good news: There are worse places in America to live than the West, if you're concerned about your health. In a 2007 survey by the nonprofit United Health Foundation, nearly all the Western states ranked somewhere in the middle, based on factors such as the number of children living in poverty, access to health care, environmental factors and motor vehicle deaths. Utah, in fact, was one of the top 10 healthiest states. However, other facets of the region's public health -- particularly its water and air -- have deteriorated in the past eight years under the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency. 

"The political leadership has undermined the agency's independence and scientific integrity. (Secretary Stephen) Johnson has claimed to make decisions based on science when even his own scientific advisors were telling the public they didn't agree with him," says Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA scientist under Clinton who is now a professor of public health at University of California-San Francisco. "EPA's effectiveness has definitely been weakened over the past eight years, and it's caused the public's health to really suffer."

In every state throughout the West, farmers spray pesticides known as organophosphates. These chemicals, which are derived from World War II-era nerve gases, can damage the mental and physical development of infants and children. In the 1990s, the National Academy of Sciences criticized the EPA's regulation of the pesticides, which have been in use since the 1960s and '70s. In response, President Clinton signed legislation ordering the agency to reassess organophosphates by 2006, using modern health standards. Under Bush, political appointees within the EPA (some of whom, such as Elin Miller, head of the EPA's Northwest region, once worked for pesticide companies) sought the approval of the pesticide and chemical industry before making regulatory decisions. According to a letter sent by EPA scientists and risk managers to Secretary Johnson in 2006, the scientists had been "besieged by political pressure exerted by Agency officials perceived to be too closely aligned with the pesticide industry." The letter urged Johnson to ban 20 organophosphate pesticides. Instead, the EPA has approved the ongoing use of nearly all of them, including chlorpyrifos, methyl parathion, and diazinon (the latter two of which are banned in Europe).

The agency has also failed to protect the public from the energy industry. In order to stimulate the flow of natural gas from rock, companies often inject "fracturing" fluids -- secret mixtures of water, sand and chemicals -- into the well bore. Up to 30 percent of the injected fluids, which can contain carcinogens such as benzene, aren't recovered and can end up in groundwater, according to EPA studies. In 2004, the agency declared hydraulic fracturing safe because no state's oil and gas commission had ever found proof that the practice had harmed the public health. But then again, no state agency -- or the EPA itself, for that matter -- had ever directly studied its health effects. "It's a Catch-22," says Wes Wilson, the environmental engineer at the agency's Denver office who blew the whistle on the study. "If the EPA doesn't study the health impacts, then there's no proof that there's anything dangerous happening. It's irrational and corrupt. We used to investigate mysteries, and now we're not." In 2005, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, stripping EPA of its authority to regulate or monitor the practice. This past summer, energy companies tested over 200 water wells within a mile of the gas fields in Wyoming's Sublette County, at the center of the West's gas boom; 23 percent were unsafe for drinking, according to EPA standards, and contaminated by hydrocarbons such as benzene and other pollutants, including sulfates and chloride.

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