Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s pick for a powerful White House environmental post, is backing away from her testimony before senators denying a role in under reporting radiation contamination in Texas drinking water.
White, the former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), said during her nomination hearing last month before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, “I would never, ever tell staff to under report health hazards. That’s the only statement I wanted to make.”
After the hearing and a Scripps News report that pointed to TCEQ documents which suggested White played a central role in under reporting radiation, the Senate committee followed up on White’s testimony and requested she clarify her position in writing.
The Senate committee honed in on a 2004 document that showed White openly supported a TCEQ policy of subtracting the margin of error from tests for radiation contamination in water. If a public water supply was found to have amounts of naturally occurring radium or uranium that exceeded federal limits, Texas regulators would subtract the margin of error and lower the results. Under White’s leadership, the agency presented testimony that said, “Maintaining this calculation procedure will eliminate approximately 35 violations.”
Radiation science experts say White’s actions probably allowed drinking water with increased cancer risk to remain untreated.
“I don’t think government should be in the business of misrepresenting contamination in water when it affects people’s health,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, who was appointed to serve as a member of the EPA’s radiation advisory committee under President George H.W. Bush’s administration. He condemns the practice of subtracting the margin of error, saying, “This is not scientifically defensible.”
A violation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum limit for radiation would require water systems to notify citizens and take action to clean up the contamination or provide an alternate source of drinking water. White and other leaders in Texas worried about the high costs that might be incurred by water systems for a violation.
In October, Trump tapped White, who has long had a reputation for extreme opposition to federal environmental regulations, to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. The council coordinates environmental policy across all federal agencies. Environmental groups worry that if confirmed White could push to expand her practices from Texas to the rest of the nation.
“The fact that Kathleen Hartnett White blessed dangerous and illegally high levels of radiation for our drinking water should disqualify her from getting anywhere near the safeguards that protect our families," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
In the written answers White submitted to the Senate committee, White defended the TCEQ practice — even while saying she is aware the EPA published a notice in the federal register on Dec. 7, 2000, that said, “It is EPA’s interpretation that the analytical result … is the number that the laboratory reports, not including (i.e. not adding or subtracting)” the margin of error.
“I am aware of the EPA’s interpretation of its rule,” she wrote. “While I was at TCEQ, the agency followed TCEQ’s interpretation of what the plain language of the rule allowed.” She also wrote that “the rule can logically and reasonably be interpreted to allow for the manner in which TCEQ addressed the ‘margin of error.’”
But a spokesperson for the EPA told Scripps that in 2008 the agency found out about the practice in Texas during a regular review, and says, “EPA noted that the state should discontinue the subtraction of the error margin when determining compliance.”
The EPA spokesperson says the agency is not aware of any other state that subtracts the margin of error from its test results.
White’s testimony has raised other concerns. Last week, 10 Democratic Senators accused her of plagiarizing at least 18 points in her written testimony, noting White’s answers matched word for word written testimony given during the nomination process for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Bill Wehrum, EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation.
The committee approved White’s nomination in late November on a party line vote, but a full vote in the Senate on her confirmation has not been scheduled.
The White House did not respond to questions about White’s nomination.
Mark Greenblatt is the senior national investigative correspondent for Scripps News. You can follow him on Twitter @greenblattmark.