By MARTHA MENDOZA – Apr 13, 2008
WASHINGTON (AP) — A White House task force that was supposed to devise a federal plan to research the issue of pharmaceuticals in drinking water has missed its deadline and failed to produce mandated reports and recommendations for coordination among numerous federal agencies, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
More than 70 pages of the task force’s documents, including e-mails and weekly reports, were released under the Freedom of Information Act as a Senate subcommittee prepares to convene a hearing Tuesday prompted by an AP investigation about trace concentrations of drugs in America’s drinking water.
The working group on pharmaceuticals in the environment was formed two years ago through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The panel has met several times for briefings and is aware of public concern about pharmaceuticals in water supplies, according to the documents.
In a weekly report dated March 24, 2006, then-task force coordinator Kevin Geiss, wrote: “There has been considerable congressional interest in this topic.”
But it is impossible to track any possible progress by the group because the White House has classified task force agendas and minutes as internal documents, and therefore cannot be released, said spokeswoman Kristin Scuderi. The group’s annual report is in draft form and therefore also cannot be released at this time, she added.
While providing some documents to the AP, Rachael Leonard, a White House deputy general counsel, said “10 inches worth of documents” were not being released.
The group’s deadline to produce a national research strategy came and went in December. Scuderi said the task force needs extra time to “serve as an internal federal vehicle to further enhance interagency collaboration.”
The group includes representatives from nine federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.
The lack of public disclosure and failure of federal agencies to act on the pharmaceutical issue is expected to be a focus at Tuesday’s hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Among others, officials from the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey are scheduled to testify.
The hearing could produce a showdown between committee members and EPA officials.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who heads the committee, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., chairman of the Transportation, Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality Subcommittee, wrote to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson on March 18 asking what the agency plans to do to address concerns about pharmaceuticals in water. The EPA had not responded, a Senate staff member said Friday.
The hearing was prompted by a five-month-long inquiry by the AP National Investigative Team that disclosed the presence of trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans.
The AP found that while water is screened for drugs by some suppliers, they usually don’t tell their customers of results showing the presence of medications including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones.
The series revealed how drugs — mostly the residue of medications taken by people, excreted and flushed down the toilet — have gotten into the water supplies of at least 24 major metropolitan areas, from Southern California to Northern New Jersey. The stories also detail the growing concerns among scientists that this pollution has adversely affected wildlife, and may be threatening human health.
EPA officials responded with concern, pledging to organize additional research and by saying people should be informed if drugs are detected in their water supplies.
But Kyla Bennett, a lawyer and former EPA biologist, said the EPA “is moving with all deliberate delay.”
Bennett, who directs the New England branch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said Congress first ordered the EPA to address the issue 12 years ago.
“When it should be pressing forward, EPA is spinning in place, as if it has overdosed on pharmaceuticals,” she said.
Others say funding has been pulled and priorities shifted.
“The EPA has missed the boat in really addressing the serious consequences of pharmaceutical disposal,” said Anna Gilmore-Hall, executive director of Healthcare Without Harm.
Hall’s nonprofit now runs what was the EPA’s Hospitals for a Healthy Environment stewardship program, designed to reduce mercury use and improve the environmental footprint of the health care industry.
The EPA cut the $200,000-per-year program in 2003 after five years, despite widespread interest and involvement from hospitals, declining to even sit on the nonprofit’s board.
Clean Water Action’s New Jersey campaign Director David Pringle, slated to testify at the hearing, said he plans to tell the senators that “while it’s not time to panic, it’s a time of concern and we need to take action.”
Pringle said existing regulations are not being used and that federal officials have known for years there are problems. “They’ve clearly been dragging their feet,” he said.
Local hearings and public meetings have already been held in various cities including New York. The Philadelphia City Council has a hearing prompted by the AP series scheduled for Monday.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate (at) ap.org