WASHINGTON, D.C. – Immediately before Senate Republicans voted to confirm Trump Administration nominee Peter Wright, a former Dow Chemical lawyer, to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) toxic chemical cleanup program, Senator Bob Menendez criticized the appointment of this self-described “dioxin lawyer” who built his career at Dow “by misrepresenting science, downplaying threats to public health, and undermining cleanups.” New Jersey contains more Superfund sites than any other state.
Sen. Menendez full remarks:
I rise today to oppose the nomination of Peter Wright as Assistant Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.
This position is of enormous consequence to the people of New Jersey, and I refuse to stay silent as the Trump Administration stacks federal agencies charged with protecting our health and our environmental safety with industry insiders and corporate hacks.
Mr. Wright is a former chemical industry lawyer. If confirmed, he will be charged with overseeing the cleanup of the most toxic waste sites in America through what’s known as the Superfund program. New Jersey is home to more Superfund sites than any other state in the nation.
For many years, a lack of strong environmental protections and oversight left our communities vulnerable to unsafe, unchecked, unregulated pollution. I’m talking about the days before we had an Environmental Protection Agency, before we passed landmark environmental laws, before we had regulations to protect public health.
Back then, big polluters had a blank check to contaminate our air, soil, and water with toxic chemicals. People across America were exposed to pesticides, lead, asbestos and other toxins through the air they breathed, the rivers they fished, the soil they farmed, and the land they built on. It was unhealthy, it was unsustainable, and in many cases it was downright dangerous.
Indeed, it was 1980 – the same year a chemical waste facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey burst into flames and forced an entire community to stay indoors – that Congress passed the law creating the Superfund program.
Today, Superfund is our primary tool for cleaning up the hazardous waste across America. It requires polluters to pay to clean up the sites they’ve contaminated. And it also funds the cleanup of ‘orphan sites’ for which the polluters responsible no longer exist.
The Superfund program is a promise to our communities. A promise to hold polluters accountable for the damage they’ve done. A promise to rid our soil and water of toxic chemicals. A promise to transform toxic brownfields into safe, livable, usable land. A promise to protect the health of today’s families, and of future generations.
But that promise cannot be kept on its own. We the people must keep that promise. And one way we can do so is by ensuring leaders who oversee the Superfund program are willing to stand up to polluters, listen to the best science and hold big corporations accountable.
Nothing in Peter Wright’s record suggests he will be that kind of leader. He spent nearly two decades as a lawyer for Dow Chemical—one of the primary polluters for many Superfund sites across the nation.
So for all the President’s talk of draining the swamp, it’s just that. TALK. Mr. Wright could have been a force for good at Dow. He could have stood up for science and raised standards. He could have pushed for more efficient, thorough cleanups of toxic waste.
Instead he did just the opposite. Consider Dow’s Midland site in Michigan, where more than a century of producing things like Styrofoam, Agent Orange, and mustard gas left rivers contaminated for more than 50 MILES.
As Dow’s self-styled “Dioxin Lawyer,” Mr. Wright points to the Midland site as one of his greatest achievements. But a New York Times investigation from last year tells a different story. It found that under Mr. Wright’s watch, Dow was accused of ‘submitting disputed data, misrepresenting scientific evidence, and delaying cleanup.’
These accusations were leveled by federal regulators and whistleblowers alike. One independent lab found Dow used incomplete contamination data, leaving the risk of toxins going undetected.
An internal whistleblower revealed Dow intentionally designed its data so that it couldn’t be properly vetted by independent third parties. And in 2007 an EPA memo concluded that Dow had a “documented history of impeding the efforts of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality” at the Midland site.
But it wasn’t only regulators that Mr. Wright misled. The EPA also found that Dow ‘frequently provided information to the public that contradicts agency positions and generally accepted scientific information.’
That included mailing out a newsletter to local residents downplaying the risks of dioxin to human health, which according to the EPA is highly toxic, can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems and damage the immune system. The newsletter even included the false claim that dioxin-contaminated wild game was safe to eat.
This is appalling.
Mr. Wright also participated in Dow’s funding of a study claiming that people living on dioxin-contaminated soil were not at risk for personal exposure. Simply put, Peter Wright made his mark at Dow Chemical by misrepresenting science, downplaying threats to public health, and undermining cleanups. These practices run counter to the VERY MISSION of the EPA.
Yet Mr. Wright’s past indicates that if confirmed he will continue to mislead communities, continue to delay cleanups, and continue to sacrifice the health of our people for the bottom line of corporate polluters.
Finally, as if it wasn’t enough to mislead the public, we now know that Mr. Wright misled Congress when he lied to the Environment and Public Works Committee about continuing to own stock in Dow after his nomination.
When I hear that Mr. Wright proudly called himself the ‘dioxin lawyer,’ when I hear that he misled families about threats to their health, when I hear that he sought to distort scientific evidence and get his company off the hook for their toxic legacy, I worry about the damage he could do across the nation, including in New Jersey.
New Jersey is home to 114 Superfund sites. That’s more than California, a state with four and a half times our population. That’s more than double the total sites in Texas, a state with 30 times our land mass.
Millions of people live within just a few miles of these sites, in North Jersey and South Jersey, in bustling cities and rural towns, in every corner of our state. Among them is one of the largest Superfund cleanups in the country. Like the site in Michigan, New Jersey’s Diamond Alkali Superfund site is contaminated with dioxin from the making of Agent Orange. Like the site in Michigan, we have warnings about dioxin-contaminated food, such as seafood from the Passaic River.
And like those in Michigan, the New Jerseyans who reside by the Passaic are depending on the Superfund program to clean up the river and limit their exposure to toxic chemicals.
These families – and millions of Americans nationwide – are depending on the EPA to protect the water they drink, the air they breathe, the soil they farm and build on. They are depending on their government to put their health ahead of corporate polluter profits. And today, they are depending ON US to reject the nomination of Peter Wright.
The EPA has a simple mission: to protect human health and the environment. The American people deserve an Assistant Administrator who believes in that mission – NOT someone who has spent decades fighting it. I urge my colleagues to vote no on Mr. Wright’s nomination.
September 16, 2021
September 15, 2021