A former chemical industry lobbyist who was recently appointed as regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has been barred from overseeing a range of vital issues in New England because of conflicts of interest that could compromise his public duties.
Dennis Deziel, who spent five years as director of federal government affairs for Dow Chemical Co. before his appointment in August, must recuse himself from decisions involving nearly one-fifth of the region’s Superfund toxic waste sites, the agency’s ethics office has said.
Dow is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of chemicals and has a history of violating environmental rules.
He is also barred from working on issues involving two other large toxic cleanups in the region, matters pertaining to 14 major chemical companies, and a range of other issues, from a prominent energy efficiency program to a federal law that regulates toxic substances.
The scope of Deziel’s entanglements has alarmed environmental groups, who say his years at Dow potentially undermine his ability to regulate certain industries.
“I have great concerns that the guy appointed to protect our region’s public health has to recuse himself from one-fifth of the area’s Superfund site cleanups,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon. “While I appreciate his earlier career in the public sector, his most recent job . . . is troubling as it looks to me like the proverbial wolf guarding the chicken coop.”
In a letter last month to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, Deziel wrote that the Office of General Counsel had advised him not to meet or communicate with representatives of companies including Union Carbide, General Latex, and Poly-Carb, which are subsidiaries of Dow. Federal rules bar lobbyists for two years after they take government jobs from making decisions involving their prior employers.
Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, became EPA administrator in February. President Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, resigned last year amid numerous ethics investigations.
Deziel didn’t respond to an interview request or a list of questions sent to an EPA spokesman.
Shortly after taking over last month as regional administrator, Deziel defended his record at a public event in Rhode Island, where he announced a settlement with the owners of one of the state’s most polluted properties, the Centredale Manor Superfund site in North Providence.
Asked about his job at Dow, Deziel, a New Hampshire native, noted his 20 years of experience working for the federal government. He began his career at the EPA in the pesticides and chemicals program and went on to work as a deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Environmental Management and in chemical security at the Department of Homeland Security
“I have a broad spectrum of environmental, health, and energy experience,” Deziel told ecoRI News. “The Dow piece is just another part in understanding how the government works — how it functions in Washington or how it doesn’t function in Washington. It gives me context for how we work and the best paths forward.”
He declined at the event to respond to questions about the Trump administration’s efforts to scale back environmental regulations.
“The regional job shouldn’t be political,” he said. “It’s about protecting the environment and the communities . . . I can’t really speak to what’s happening in Washington.”
Dow, which employs tens of thousands of people around the world, has been involved in some high-profile cases of environmental pollution. In 2003, the company paid $2 million for making illegal safety claims about its pesticides. It was the largest penalty ever in a pesticide case.
In 2013, a federal court ordered the company to pay $1.2 billion for its involvement in a scheme to fix the price of a chemical used to make foam for vehicles, furniture, and packaging.
Dow also has some responsibility for 96 Superfund sites around the country, 21 of them in New England, including Plymouth Harbor and Tewksbury.
When Deziel recuses himself, decisions are likely to be left to Deborah Szaro, a career EPA employee who had served as acting regional administrator before his appointment.
Curt Spalding, who served as regional administrator during the Obama administration, noted that he also had to recuse himself from certain things during his tenure. He was barred from making decisions related to Pfizer, because his wife had stock in the pharmaceutical company, and Save the Bay, the environmental advocacy group in Rhode Island for which he served as executive director.
While Spalding said it “certainly is unusual” for a former chemical executive to serve as a regional EPA administrator, he said the feedback he has heard so far about Deziel has been “fine.”
“There is a lot to learn in the hopefully short time he has in the job,” said Spalding, referring to his hope that Trump won’t be reelected.
But ethics watchdog groups have raised concerns about the extent of Deziel’s recusals.
“This strikes us as more extensive and more comprehensive than some of the recusal statements we’ve seen,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Even so, “there is a lot that they are interpreting as not being covered.”
In his letter to Wheeler, Deziel said he interpreted the advice from the agency’s ethics office as allowing him to take part in decisions involving toxic chemicals known as PCBs, which have polluted many of the region’s waters. The regional office of the EPA has been involved for years in bitter negotiations over how much General Electric Co. should pay for the PCBs it dumped into the Housatonic River in the Berkshires.
Deziel wrote that he also believed he is allowed to work on broader policy issues involving another family of toxic chemicals, known as PFAS, which Dow has produced. State and federal officials are considering stricter standards for the concentrations of the chemicals allowed in drinking water.
“I am alarmed that his limited recusal will put him in charge of an issue — PFAS — where his former employers have literally billions of dollars at stake in potential liability,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.
Kyla Bennett, science policy director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said she worries that Deziel can’t be objective on PFAS issues.
“It doesn’t pass the straight face test,” she said. “This is worse than the fox guarding the hen house; this is slaughtering the hens and serving them on a silver platter to the fox.”
Deziel succeeded Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, who was praised by local advocates for her work on environmental justice issues. She left the position to run EPA’s chemical and pollution office after just nine months.
But the head of the union that represents EPA employees said many are skeptical of Deziel’s industry background.
“Just coming from a large chemical company, such as Dow, means he has a long way to go to gain any respect from EPA employees,” said Steve Calder, a clean air inspector.