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Originally published Sunday, April 13, 2014 at 6:18 AM

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‘Poison Spring:’ decades of lax enforcement by the EPA

Ex-EPA. official E.G. Vallianatos and environmental writer McKay Jenkins document EPA’s failure to enforce environmental laws regulating toxic chemicals, particularly the highly toxic dioxin. Vallianatos appears Sunday April 13 at Town Hall Seattle.


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

E.G. Vallianatos

The co-author of “Poison Spring” will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 13, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 — available at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255

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“Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA”

by E.G. Vallianatos with McKay Jenkins

Bloomsbury, 284 pp., $28

Many Americans are probably only remotely aware they might have been made vulnerable to a decades-long saturation of their environment by a showering of toxic chemicals on their food crops, with little apparent protection by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Former EPA staffer E.G. Vallianatos, with environmental writer McKay Jenkins, reveals the politics that have delivered us to this place.

Having spent most of his 25-year career (1979-2004) in the EPA’s Office of Pesticides Programs, Vallianatos saw firsthand not only the science that found toxicity in the pesticides Big Agriculture has been applying to crops, but how those discoveries played out within a highly politicized EPA over five presidential administrations.

Vallianatos (the book is written in his first-person voice) cites the case of Cate Jenkins, an EPA scientist who in the early 1990s blew the whistle on what she considered to be Monsanto’s fraudulent claim that exposure to dioxin — “the most toxic chemical ever known to man,” according to the EPA, and a substance Monsanto used in making a wood preservative — did not cause cancer in workers.

The EPA, according to Vallianatos, had relied on Monsanto’s own dioxin studies to determine dioxin’s danger to the community, and Jenkins claimed Monsanto had falsified its results by, among other things, excluding workers with cancer from its studies.

The EPA conducted an inconclusive criminal investigation of Monsanto, then apologized to the company for the accusations, along with relieving Jenkins of her official duties. Jenkins filed a harassment complaint with the Department of Labor, which reinstated her. The EPA appealed the ruling to a higher authority, which ruled again in Jenkins’ favor. The EPA appealed again, and that court also ruled in Jenkins’ favor.

It’s hard not to feel outrage at the combination of EPA cowardice and manufacturers’ disregard for the safety of the American public that Vallianatos lays out here. Still, “Poison Spring” sometimes fights itself.

First, it might have been more coherently presented. Vallianatos rails most at the Reagan administration’s neglect — if not outright hostility — toward the agency, citing a number of offenses, including slashing EPA’s budget. A timeline would have more graphically shown a cutting of the agency’s budget throughout Reagan’s presidency.

Second, Vallianatos’ footnotes are a little quirky, as when he cites a 2006 New York Times editorial as the source of his statement that smog and soot from America’s vehicles, factories and farms cause 20,000 deaths each year. Vallianatos should have used the primary source, which, according to the Times editorial, turned out to be the EPA..

Finally, though he shows how compromised the EPA has become in the face of overwhelming pressure from chemical manufacturers and politicians, Vallianatos says little about the public’s role in this mess. The EPA was created during the Nixon administration, which was simply responding to intense political pressure at the time to do something about environmental degradation.

Last fall, Washington state voters failed to approve an initiative that would have required the labeling of genetically modified foods, in the face of a “No” campaign funded by Monsanto, among other companies, that spent a record $22 million (for one side in a state initiative fight), according to The Seattle Times.

So if citizens cannot muster the energy and will needed to push their local, state or federal government to more effectively monitor the production of their food, should they expect more than what the EPA now gives them?



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