Dems reaffirm vow to block EPA nominees over info requests

Source: Corbin Hiar and Kevin Bogardus, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, October 5, 2017

Lawmakers used a hearing on top U.S. EPA nominees this morning to slam the agency for its response to congressional oversight.

President Trump’s EPA picks — including controversial nominees to lead the agency’s chemical safety and air offices — appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

They were joined by a Democratic commissioner seeking to extend his time at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (see related story).

But much of the early focus of the long-awaited hearing was on the answers Democratic members have received to 26 letters they’ve sent to EPA since Administrator Scott Pruitt took office this year (E&E News PM, Feb. 17).

Ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) argued the agency has failed to adequately respond to all but seven oversight letters. Until that changes, he said, Democrats will oppose all EPA nominees — regardless of their credentials or capabilities.

Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) bashed Democrats for using EPA’s answers as justification for blocking nominees he believes are well-qualified for the positions they’ve been chosen to fill.

“It is deeply unfortunate that blind opposition to all of this administration’s EPA nominees, including the well-respected Susan Bodine to be EPA’s enforcement chief, has stalled the confirmation process,” he said, referring to a former committee staffer whose nomination was sent to the Senate floor in July.

“The EPA has already sent the minority over 2,800 pages in response to its seemingly never-ending requests. I have these responses here,” Barrasso said, before piling in front of himself four stacks of double-sided pages a foot-and-a-half high.

“Claiming EPA is not responsive as an excuse for not confirming important nominees doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

Carper, however, responded by touching the bare dais in front of him. “I have stacked up right here the pages of the responses for the other 19 requests,” he said.

“EPA needs to do better than that,” Carper said. “We need the agency to show us more progress, and when they do, we’ll be happy to move these nominees forward. I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

Michael Dourson

Carper and other Democrats made clear that, even if the agency becomes more responsive, they were unlikely to support some of the nominees on their merits.

The Trump pick who attracted the strongest opposition from Democrats and public health advocates at the hearing was Michael Dourson, an environmental health professor nominated to head EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

Dourson, who now teaches at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, was asked about dozens of studies he previously did for tobacco companies and chemical manufacturers and other industry interests as the head of Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, a nonprofit consulting firm (E&E Daily, July 18).

Dourson defended TERA by noting that two-thirds of the work it did was for government sponsors and pledged, if confirmed, to foster a “collaborative spirit with our federal and state colleagues, and those from other nations, organizations and the public, on pesticides and otherwise unregulated chemicals.”

That didn’t satisfy Carper and other Democratic members, who repeatedly pressed Dourson to commit to recusing himself from weighing in on regulatory decisions involving chemicals he’s previously studied for industry.

The nominee again and again said he would defer to the judgment of the EPA ethics office, which has already cleared him to work on anything not directly connected to former employers (E&E News PM, Sept. 15).

The most heated exchange occurred after Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) recounted how her constituents had been harmed by petroleum coke, an oil industry byproduct that Dourson has studied for Koch Industries.

Duckworth noted that EPA’s website says “significant quantities of fugitive dust from pet coke storage and handling operations present a health risk” and then asked him whether he agreed with that statement.

“I’m not ready to answer that question,” he said.

She responded, “Then you’re not ready to go work at the EPA.”

Families who believe chemicals that Dourson studied have harmed their health sat at the back of the hearing room shaking their heads at many of Dourson’s answers. They also held a news conference yesterday afternoon to raise concerns about his nomination (E&E News PM, Oct. 3).

Bill Wehrum

Carper also expressed concerns about Bill Wehrum, Trump’s nominee to lead EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

The ranking member said he knows Wehrum, a fellow Delawarean, noting they have run road races together and at times even ridden the same commuter train from Wilmington to Washington.

Nonetheless, Carper said he was troubled by Wehrum’s legal work on behalf of industry clients, often in opposition to environmental regulations.

“I think he is a good person, but in my judgment, he is not a good choice for this job,” Carper said about the nominee.

Carper said he opposed Wehrum the last time he was nominated as EPA air chief during the George W. Bush administration. Wehrum ended up serving as acting air chief from 2005 to 2007.

In his opening statement, Carper said Wehrum has represented industry clients 31 times in lawsuits against EPA since 2009.

“I feel too little has changed since he last appeared before this committee,” Carper said.

Wehrum responded by saying that, if confirmed, he would implement Trump and Pruitt’s agenda at EPA and noted that the president has signed executive orders to roll back the agency’s “needless and burdensome regulations.”

Wehrum agreed with principles that Pruitt emphasized in his own confirmation testimony, including following the rule of law and “cooperative federalism,” in which EPA looks to its state partner agencies to take on a greater role in protecting the environment.

Republicans praised Wehrum, with Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) calling him an expert in environmental law, while Democrats focused on Wehrum’s work at law firm Hunton & Williams LLP.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked Wehrum whether he would turn over information detailing his clients and work at the firm to the committee.

Wehrum replied he would comply with EPA’s ethics rules as well as sign Trump’s ethics pledge, both of which would limit his contacts with past clients while at EPA.

“Well, that sounds like a ‘no’ to the Senate,” Whitehouse said.

Wehrum also faced tough questions from farm state Republicans, like Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, over EPA’s handling of the renewable fuel standard.

The agency has hinted lately that it may require less biofuel to be blended into transportation fuel under the program, angering agricultural groups.

Wehrum was asked several times whether he planned to uphold the RFS, but the air chief nominee said he need to study the issue further, given the complexity of the program.

Other nominees

Like Wehrum, Matt Leopold, Trump’s pick for EPA general counsel, also touted cooperative federalism. Leopold spoke from his experience as general counsel for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The nominee also noted his work as a Justice Department attorney in securing restoration funds from BP PLC after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He praised EPA’s work in protecting the environment as it approaches its 50th anniversary.

“EPA must always ensure that we don’t backslide from these important protections,” Leopold said.

Those sentiments won plaudits from Carper.

“That is the kind of commitment we’re looking for,” Carper said.

Senators did not ask as many questions of David Ross, director of the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Environmental Protection Unit and the administration’s pick to lead EPA’s Office of Water.

But Carper did criticize Ross’ involvement in suing EPA over the Clean Water Rule and Chesapeake Bay Program as a senior assistant attorney general in Wyoming’s Water and Natural Resources Division in 2015 and as a private attorney in 2013, respectively.

Ross, Carper said, “has represented problematic positions on the Clean Water Rule and pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.”

Later in the hearing, Ross responded by saying, “I may disagree a little bit on some approaches, but the ultimate objective I share completely and am fully committed to protecting health and the environment.”

The nominee also said he “defers” to the courts when asked by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) whether he believed the Clean Water Rule “involved a reach in EPA authority beyond what was granted by Congress.”

“There are two federal courts who have taken the extraordinary steps of staying implementation of the rule both out of procedural and substantive concerns,” Ross replied. “So I think the courts have sent the message as to whether or not there are some legal infirmities there.”

Ross, like other administration picks, said, “I do believe strongly in cooperative federalism. One of the things I have heard in the run-up to this hearing and also working for two different states in the past few years is the frustration in the relationship between the states and federal government, and I am committed to taking that head on.”

Barrasso didn’t give any indication after the hearing on when the committee would vote on the nominees. Their confirmation hearing was originally supposed to happen last month but was pushed back due to a change in the Senate floor schedule.

Reporter Ariel Wittenberg contributed.