EPA Indicates Bold Support for Scientific Integrity on Its Website

The “EPA Actions to Address PFAS” webpage was changed to reflect EPA career scientists’ conclusions about the latest toxicity assessment for PFBS guidelines and their decision to remove the document. The image on the left represents the webpage on January 20, 2021; the image on the right represents the webpage on February 9, 2021. Words that were removed from the former version are highlighted in yellow on the left; words that were added in the later version are highlighted in blue on the right. Link to Wayback Machine comparison.

Welcome! This post is part of the EDGI Website Monitoring Team’s “Change of the Week” blog series. The purpose of this series is to highlight interesting changes we have observed in the language used on, or access to, federal websites. We want to share these changes to encourage public engagement with and discussion of their significance, as well as understanding of the ephemeral nature of website information. This week’s change occurred between January 20 and February 9, 2021, on the “EPA Actions to Address PFAS” webpage.

What happened:

EPA staff edited this website to indicate they believe the conclusions drawn in a toxicity assessment for perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) were marred by violations of EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, including political interference. The toxicity assessment is a scientific document that reports on the “toxicity values associated with potential noncancer health effects following oral exposure” of PFBS. The assessment was removed from the website and is undergoing internal review. This change was also announced in a February 9th press release describing the agency’s actions.

Why we think it’s interesting:

The description of the agency’s actions on the webpage are quite bold. The authors of the change are essentially charging the previous administration with acting inappropriately, especially by making this statement on a webpage about rulemaking and guidance. In addition, the language used on this webpage was also used in a February 9, 2021, EPA press release about the agency’s actions. Whoever directed the change on this webpage was likely working closely with the EPA’s press office, which suggests this change was part of a larger messaging strategy. 

The EPA press release prefaces the agency’s actions by citing the White House’s Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. This memorandum emphasizes the importance of scientific integrity and avoiding political interference in the creation of scientific information. Of note is this memorandum’s requirement that agencies like the EPA “update within 60 days of the date of this memorandum any website content … inconsistent with the principles set forth in this memorandum” (section 3.c.iv). One might therefore expect more website updates like this one in the coming weeks.

This memorandum might explain why EPA also decided to completely remove the link to the 2021 toxicity assessment for PFBS guidelines document from the website. The document that was removed can be found here in the nonprofit Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, but not in EPA’s online archive. However, previous draft versions of this document, disseminated for public comment, are still available on EPA’s website. We think that a better web governance practice would be to preserve access to all of these documents and place a banner on them indicating they were subject to political interference and are thus vacated.