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Embattled Trump Nominee Inadvertently Draws Attention to Radiation in Drinking Water

Radiation levels were deliberately underreported.

(Photo: Delwin; Edited: LW / TO)

This story has been updated.

Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s pick to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is probably best known for her idealistic view of fossil fuels. In 2014, she suggested that energy from fossil fuels “dissolved the economic justification for slavery” in the British Empire. As the Texas Observer noted at the time, coal mining fueled industrialization that actually increased demand for cotton picked by colonial slaves in the early 19th century.

Hartnett White has other controversial ideas. She told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in November that climate science is still “subject to debate,” and the degree that human-caused carbon pollution is contributing to climate disruption is “uncertain.” White’s remarks prompted 300 scientists and scholars to sign a letter “defending scientific integrity” and opposing her nomination, which seemed all but doomed until Trump resubmitted her name to Congress this week.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Hartnett White to serve as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) from 2003 to 2007, and her track record alarmed Democrats considering her nomination. Under Hartnett White’s supervision, the TCEQ gave federal regulators faulty data about the amount of radiation in Texas drinking water, which had exceeded federal limits in several communities, according to reports.

“It is virtually impossible to find anyone who can, after watching Ms. White’s hearing, sincerely say that she is well-qualified for the important job to which she has been nominated,” said ranking member Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware), in a statement on Monday. He added that he had “never sat through a hearing as excruciating as Ms. White’s” in 17 years of serving in the Senate.

As head the White House environmental quality office, Hartnett White would have influence over how federal agencies regulate drinking water. Tap water used by 170 million Americans in all 50 states contains some level of radiation that may increase the risk of cancer at least marginally, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group analyzing state data from 2010 to 2015. Only a small percentage of water systems serving a total of 276,000 people in 27 states reported radiation levels exceeding federal limits, but environmentalists warn those limits are already too high and should be updated to improve water quality.

Radiation in drinking water comes from naturally occurring elements in the Earth’s crust and may be higher in areas disturbed by mining or oil and gas extraction, according to the report. The most common sources of radiation are radium-226 and radium-228, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires utilities to test for these elements to make sure radiation in tap water does not exceed the federal limit.

During Hartnett White’s tenure at TCEQ, some water utilities in Texas that could not meet the federal standards for radium-226 and radium-228 faced violations that would have required them to notify residents, so state regulators ducked the limits by reporting radiation levels in tap water minus the margin of error attributed to the laboratory test, a practice the EPA had warned state regulators against.

Bill Walker, an environmental analyst and author of the report, told Truthout that Hartnett White and other top state officials knew that radiation levels in the tap water for some Texas communities were high enough to increase the lifetime risk of getting cancer to 1 in 400. However, the TCEQ continued reporting lower radiation levels for years, which helped Texas utilities avoid at least 35 violations before an EPA audit flagged the practice in 2008.

“In the field of public health, that is just outrageous, that is just beyond the pale,” Walker said, adding that Hartnett White’s nomination to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality is a “step too far, even for this administration.”

Hartnett White defended the practice in an interview with the local news station that exposed the scandal in 2011, saying that the federal standards were too costly and TCEQ “did not believe the science of health effects justified the EPA setting the standards where they did.”

“I believe local first, state second and federal government third,” Hartnett White said.

She defended herself again before the Senate committee in November and in written statements to Carper and other Democrats, claiming that other lawmakers and state leaders had also questioned whether the EPA’s standards were justified. In the end, she said, EPA and TCEQ had interpreted the federal rules for reporting radiation in tap water differently.

Hartnett White also gave Democrats some of the same answers, verbatim, that they had received from Scott Pruitt when he was nominated to run the EPA, leading to allegations of plagiarism. Frustrated, Senate Democrats refused to vote on her nomination before the end of the year, a procedural move that effectively sent her nomination back to the president. Trump resubmitted Hartnett White’s nomination this week without comment.

As head of the Council on Environmental Quality, Hartnett White would coordinate policy for the White House and make recommendations for meeting environmental goals across federal agencies, but filling the position is not as urgent as naming the head of a major federal agency like the EPA. At this point, it’s unclear if or when Congress will reconsider Hartnett White’s nomination to the post.

“The Trump administration’s decision to resubmit her name … rather than take this opportunity to select a new and better qualified candidate is shortsighted, irresponsible and, I believe, will prove to be a mistake,” Carper said.

Walker said it’s important to remember that while most tap water meets federal safety standards, those standards are not necessarily equivalent to what scientists say are safe. For example, the federal limit for combined levels of radioactive radium-226 and radium-228 in drinking water has not changed since 1976. California’s Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment has more recent research to recommend a much lower standard as a public health goal for the state, which would lower the already small risk of getting cancer from drinking tap water over the course of a lifetime. A spokesperson for the EPA told Truthout that the agency is “currently in the midst of a health assessment for radium.”

Even with public health goals that go above and beyond federal standards, California has more residents impacted by radiation in their tap water than any other state, according to the Environmental Working Group. Almost 800 water systems serving 25 million people reported levels of radium-226 and radium-228 in their drinking water. There is plenty of work to be done, and Walker says politicians must respect and strengthen public health standards in Washington, not ignore them like Harnett White’s agency did in Texas.

“We basically believe that everyone in the US should have a home water filter,” Walker said, adding that members of the public can review the test results for water in their area by using the database on the group’s website.

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