NYT: Bernhardt worked to block report on endangered species

Nomination to be reviewed by Senate this week

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While serving as the Interior Department's deputy secretary, President Donald Trump's current pick for the department's top post led an effort to stop the release of a report on the risks pesticides pose to endangered species, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Citing 84,000 pages of department documents obtained by the paper via Freedom of Information Act requests, the Times reported that in October 2017, David Bernhardt directed political appointees at the department to block a report from the Fish and Wildlife Service -- which is under the control of the department -- that found two pesticides "were so toxic that they 'jeopardize the continued existence' of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish and other animals and plants, a conclusion that could lead to tighter restrictions on use of the chemicals," according to the paper.

The Times said that instead of releasing the report, the appointees, at the direction of Bernhardt, "set in motion a new process intended to apply a much narrower standard to determine the risks from the pesticides."

The paper reported that the new approach from Bernhardt, a former fossil fuels lobbyist who currently serves as the department's acting secretary, was "one that pesticide makers and users had lobbied intensively to promote."

Citing department records, the Times said that as deputy secretary, Bernhardt "had nine meetings or calls on his schedule with Fish and Wildlife staff in October and November 2017, and helped write the letter saying the Interior Department was no longer prepared to release the draft."

The Interior Department did not respond to CNN's request for comment Tuesday on Bernhardt's involvement in the report.

The paper said the report addressed three popular pesticides, including malathion and chlorpyrifos, which are manufactured by FMC Corp. and Dow AgroSciences, respectively.

Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, a former official at the Environmental Protection Agency who at the time ran the office in charge of toxic chemicals and pesticides, told the Times that the new approach "is certainly similar to the pattern we saw in toxic chemicals as well, where the regulated industry had a more sympathetic ear in the new administration."

The EPA did not respond to CNN's request for comment Tuesday.

According to the Times, records show that Gary Frazer, the top endangered-species official at the Fish and Wildlife Service, participated in all the meetings with Bernhardt in 2017.

Frazer, the paper reported, "directed his staff to revise the study" and told the Times that Bernhardt's role was "entirely appropriate" and that "there was no arm-twisting of any kind."

In a statement to CNN, Laury Marshall Parramore, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency's "consultation with EPA on the re-registration of three pesticides is a highly complex undertaking," adding that they have "continuously refined (their) methodology."

"This has necessitated delaying the release of the draft biological opinions but will ultimately ensure that they are legally sound and based on the best available scientific information," she said.

Bernhardt's nomination is set to be reviewed by the Senate this week.

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