Trump's pick for key environmental role tells senators she did not underreport water contamination

Her answer contradicts 2011 investigation

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s top pick for a key White House post advising him on environmental and energy policies, gave a response Wednesday at a Senate nomination hearing that raises questions about the truthfulness of her testimony.

At issue: White’s answer to a question from Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., about her role in helping public water systems across Texas underreport the amount of radiation present in their drinking water. 

Last month, Trump tapped White, a former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who has a reputation for extreme opposition to federal environmental regulations, to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. 

In her nomination hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Carper, the ranking member on the panel, stated, “When Ms. White served on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the commission staff were told to underreport the levels of radiation in drinking water.”   

Carper cited a 2011 investigative documentary from KHOU-TV in Houston that showed White openly acknowledged playing a role in a scandal where official state policy helped dozens of water systems in Texas avoid cleaning up radioactive contamination of drinking water that exceeded amounts allowed by the EPA.

“She later defended these actions, telling the reporter that, quote, ‘We did not believe the science of health effects justified the EPA setting the standard where they did,’” Carper said.

In responding to the Senate committee, White said, “I would never, ever tell staff to underreport health hazards. That’s the only statement I wanted to make.”  

KHOU reported in 2011 that White, who also sat on the Texas Water Advisory Council, acknowledged that the decision to report lower test results, rather than the actual results, was a good one.

“As memory serves me, that made incredibly good sense,” she told KHOU.

White did not respond to a Scripps News request Wednesday evening for comment about her Senate testimony. White currently serves as the director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. 

White had said in 2011, in explaining her position, that she and the scientists with the Texas Radiation Advisory Board disagreed with the science that the EPA based its rules on.  She says the rules were too protective and would end up costing small communities tens of millions of dollars to comply.

“We did not believe the science of health effects justified EPA setting the standard where they did,” White said. She added, “I have far more trust in the vigor of the science that TCEQ assess, than I do EPA.” 

But a state “white paper” obtained by KHOU revealed top scientists at the very agency White led had concluded health risks to Texans were all too real, saying,  “Over 200,000 Texans drink water from public water systems which are contaminated with relatively high levels of radium and other naturally occurring radioactive material.”

The paper noted that 140 systems are impacted and concluded some of these systems contain levels of radioactive contaminants with a calculated cancer risk that would cause an extra cancer victim for every 400 people who were exposed to the drinking water over a long-term period, “posing a potentially serious health concern.”

In a trove of state documents ordered released by the Texas attorney general for the 2011 investigation, White is shown as having attended a June 2004 meeting of the Texas Water Advisory Council, where TCEQ presented written testimony that stated, “Under existing TCEQ policy, calculation of the violation accounts for the reporting error of each radionuclide analysis. Maintaining this calculation procedure will eliminate approximately 35 violations.” 

The practice of underreporting test results continued, according to the KHOU report, until an EPA audit told them to stop in 2009.

“To say Ms. White’s testimony yesterday was concerning is an understatement," Carper said on Thursday. "At best, her shocking points of view on threats to our public health are woefully ignorant."

The senator also said he found "it extremely disconcerting that much of what she said yesterday contradicts her long public record on issues she would oversee at (the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality), including whether or not she deems it appropriate to take the lowest common denominator or skirt the science and the law when reviewing or implementing health standards and regulations.”

A committee staff member said Carper will submit questions for the record that will ask White to elaborate on her testimony, including how she implemented laws and regulations at TCEQ.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., also was critical of White's testimony. "Maybe Ms. White and her family only drink bottled water, but it's not hard to understand that radioactive material does not belong in our children’s drinking water," Duckworth said. "The fact that Ms. White went out of her way to conceal the threat of water contamination isn’t just shameful — it’s extremely dangerous. Those responsible for enforcing our nation’s environmental policies should always strive to protect the health and safety of the American people, and Ms. White has made it clear she is not up to the task."

White's testimony has come under fire from watchdog groups, too. Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a non-partisan group based in Washington, D.C., said, “Contrary to her Senate testimony yesterday, the TCEQ under Kathleen Hartnett White’s direction did in fact tell staff to underreport health hazards.” He added that “Kathleen Hartnett White was a disaster as chair of the TCEQ, and she would be a disaster as head of the federal Council on Environmental Quality.”

The National Resources Defense Council’s John Walke, a former EPA attorney during the Clinton administration, also said White misled senators about the issue. 

“I’m aware of the TCEQ policy, with Kathleen Hartnett White’s blessing, that chose to round down the margin of error, rather than rounding up, which one could do equally,” Walke said. “I consider what TCEQ did, with Kathleen Hartnett White’s awareness and blessing, to be documented lying to the EPA and law-breaking.”

The NRDC, which reports having 2 million members and is opposed to White’s nomination, is a leading environmental watchdog and litigation group based in Washington, D.C. 

“Any ordinary American should have concern about government officials casually lying to the federal government to avoid a compliance cost for cleaning up pollution like radiation in drinking water," Walke said. “We believe she is deeply and profoundly unfit for the job.”

The KHOU-TV interview in 2011 was conducted by Mark Greenblatt, who was an investigative reporter at the station at the time. Greenblatt is now senior national investigative correspondent for Scripps News. You can follow him on Twitter @greenblattmark.

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