WASHINGTON — In the weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency decided to reject its own scientists’ advice to ban a potentially harmful pesticide, Scott Pruitt, the agency’s head, promised farming industry executives who wanted to keep using the pesticide that it is “a new day, and a new future,” and that he was listening to their pleas.
Details on this meeting and dozens of other meetings in the weeks leading up to the late March decision by Mr. Pruitt are contained in more than 700 pages of internal agency documents obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information request.
Though hundreds of pages describing the deliberations were redacted from the documents, the internal memos show how the E.P.A.’s new staff, appointed by President Trump, pushed the agency’s career staff to draft a ruling that would deny the decade-old petition by environmentalists to ban the pesticide, chlorpyrifos.
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Chlorpyrifos is still widely used in agriculture — on apples, oranges, strawberries, almonds and many other fruits — though it was barred from residential use in 2000. The E.P.A.’s scientists have recommended it be banned from use on farms and produce because it has been linked to lower I.Q.s and developmental delays among agricultural workers and their children.
At a March 1 meeting at E.P.A. headquarters with members of the American Farm Bureau Federation from Washington State, industry representatives pressed the E.P.A. not to reduce the number of pesticides available. They said there were not enough alternative pesticides to chlorpyrifos. They also said there was a need for “a reasonable approach to regulate this pesticide,” which is widely used in Washington State, and that they wanted “the farming community to be more involved in the process.”
According to the documents, Mr. Pruitt “stressed that this is a new day, a new future, for a common-sense approach to environmental protection.” He said the new administration “is looking forward to working closely with the agricultural community.”
Three days before Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, Dow Chemical had separately submitted a request to the agency to reject the petition to ban chlorpyrifos, calling the scientific link between the childhood health issues and the pesticide unclear, agency records show.
Amy Graham, an E.P.A. spokeswoman, said the denial of the petition to ban chlorpyrifos was justified. “Taking emails out of context doesn’t change the fact that we continue to examine the science surrounding chlorpyrifos,” she said in a written statement. She added that the agency was examining “scientific concerns with the methodology used by the previous administration.”
The emails show that as late as March 7, Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, the acting head of the E.P.A.’s office of chemical safety, was presenting the top political staff with options for how to handle the decade-old petition from an environmental group requesting the ban.
“We would talk about impacts of different options in the briefing,” Ms. Cleland-Hamnett wrote in a March 7 email. The email raised the possibility of a meeting with Mr. Pruitt to discuss the pesticide, a decision that the E.P.A.’s political staff had called a “hot” regulatory item, given a court-ordered deadline of late March to rule on the petition.
The next day, Ryan Jackson, Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, wrote to another political appointee that he had “scared” the agency’s career staff, suggesting that he had made clear the direction that the political staff wanted to go — and given the career staff explicit verbal orders to prepare documents explaining why the agency had shifted its position.
“I think I did scare them or surprise them,” Mr. Jackson wrote to Samantha Dravis, Mr. Pruitt’s political appointee to oversee E.P.A. policy. “They are getting us information for Friday but they know where this is headed and they are documenting it well.”
As the draft of the order rejecting the ban of the petition was being written, political staff at the E.P.A. continued to organize meetings with agriculture industry officials. An email on March 10 said: “Basic info for meeting. Purpose is to reset relationship with ag leaders.”
When Ms. Cleland-Hamnett wrote back to the political appointees on March 16 to provide a draft of the order rejecting the ban of the pesticide, she told her bosses that “I think this version will allow you to see how we’re describing the basis for the denial.”
The emails indicate E.P.A. officials closely coordinated their decision on chlorpyrifos with the White House and the Department of Agriculture, which is more closely linked with the agriculture industry and had questioned the justification for the ban.
On March 29, as the E.P.A. was about to publicly announce Mr. Pruitt’s decision to forego the ban, an E.P.A. political employee asked in an email, “Did you run this by Ray Starling at the White House?” referring to the special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade and food assistance.
E.P.A. officials wanted to demonstrate in the news release that they had the support of the Agriculture Department and the White House, writing in one email, “Do you think we could add ‘With Support from USDA, Admin….’ Into the headline, to show it’s a joint release? Or is that too much?”
Environmental groups said the emails demonstrate that the E.P.A. under Mr. Pruitt is doing favors for the industry, even if it means compromising public health.
“What is clear from these documents is that Administrator Pruitt’s abrupt action to vacate the ban on chlorpyrifos was an ideological — not a health-based decision,” said Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group. “In fact, the Pruitt E.P.A. has shown time and time again that it seems to only be willing to act quickly when it comes to dismantling health-protective rules like the proposed ban on chlorpyrifos at the behest of industry.”