Partisan split expected as panel vets 4 for top EPA jobs

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, September 18, 2017

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee plans to grill nominees for some of U.S. EPA’s most sensitive jobs — along with a Nuclear Regulatory Commission member up for a second term — at what’s certain to be a contentious Wednesday hearing.

The meeting will cover President Trump’s choices to lead EPA’s offices of air, water and chemical safety, as well as the agency’s top lawyer position.

It has taken Trump up to seven months to settle on the nominees; three of the four were nominated only this month. And Republicans’ decision to pack them all into a single hearing drew objections from at least one Democrat.

In a statement, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said the move fits into a “troubling pattern of stacking nominees into hearings and jamming them through the committee.”

A spokesman for EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) responded that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt “needs his leadership team in place to ensure America has clean land, air and water.”

The spokesman, Mike Danylak, also knocked Democrats for holding up final Senate action on the nomination of Susan Bodine to head EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. The committee approved Bodine’s candidacy in July on an 11-10 party-line vote.

The same partisan split can be expected to surface at Wednesday’s hearing, particularly as Democrats see the nominations as an opportunity to squeeze answers out of Pruitt on EPA policies and activities.

Since Pruitt joined the agency in February, “EPW Democrats have sent more than 20 letters … seeking information on serious and substantive matters and have received adequate responses to only a fraction of them,” ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement last week after meeting with the four candidates.

“Responding to oversight requests from a co-equal branch of government is not optional, a view my Republican colleagues strongly held when President Obama was in the White House,” he said.


For William Wehrum, a lawyer who is Trump’s choice to head EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, this will be his second try for the post. Under George W. Bush’s administration, Wehrum served as acting air chief from 2005 to 2007.

But while Bush tapped him to get the job on a Senate-confirmed basis, Wehrum was unable to overcome opposition from Democrats wary of his ties to businesses regulated by EPA.

In private practice, Wehrum has since continued to represent clients in the oil and gas sector and other industries with a direct stake in environmental regulation, according to a financial disclosure report.

Should he win Senate confirmation, Wehrum has pledged to step back from any involvement in matters affecting former clients for a year. The EPW Committee’s Democrats are nonetheless likely to probe the strength of his commitment to EPA’s mission of protecting public health and the environment. They could also question Wehrum on his previously stated view that Congress never intended for the agency to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act (ClimateWire, Sept. 8).

In an email replying on Wehrum’s behalf to queries from E&E News late last week, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said he “has a long history of public service” and has spent more than 31 years “working in the environmental field through engineering, legal practice, and administrative duties.”


Similar questions about industry connections surround the nomination of Michael Dourson, Trump’s pick to lead the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

Dourson began his career at EPA, where he served for 15 years, rising to the position of associate director of the agency’s Environmental Criteria and Assessment Office. He then went on to found Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, a nonprofit consulting firm that worked to swiftly evaluate chemical hazards.

A year after the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News reported on TERA’s close ties to chemical manufacturers, tobacco companies and other industry interests, Dourson shut down the firm and joined the faculty of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine, where he earned his doctorate in 1980.

But financial disclosures released by the Office of Government Ethics last week show that Dourson has continued to work closely with the chemical makers he would be tasked with regulating (E&E News PM, Sept. 15).

Public health and environmental groups, led by the Center for Environmental Health, have launched a campaign to “Dump Dourson.” An online petition urging members of Congress to oppose his nomination had already attracted nearly 11,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon, a CEH spokeswoman said. The coalition also plans to increase its effort after the hearing.

Also on the agenda is Matt Leopold, Trump’s nominee to be general counsel at EPA. He has a long record in environmental law.

Leopold is a former general counsel for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, having held that job from 2013 to 2015. He also served at the Justice Department from 2007 to 2013.

As an attorney in DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, Leopold worked on litigation, such as the federal response to BP PLC’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Currently based in Tallahassee, Fla., he has been at Carlton Fields since 2015. At the law firm, Leopold has represented several clients that have had dealings with EPA in the past, including chemicals giant BASF, utility company Florida Power & Light Co. and automaker Ford Motor Co., according to his financial disclosure form.

Under his ethics agreement, Leopold said he would avoid EPA matters that involve the firm or former clients for his first year at the agency unless he is given authorization to participate. In addition, he would forfeit his right to payments from ongoing litigation if confirmed.

Water, nuclear

Senators will also consider David Ross to lead EPA’s Office of Water. Ross currently directs the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Environmental Protection Unit and has represented states and industry in lawsuits against EPA.

Ross challenged EPA’s Clean Water Rule as a senior assistant attorney general in Wyoming’s Water and Natural Resources Division in 2015. He also represented the American Farm Bureau Federation in its 2012 lawsuit over EPA’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan (Greenwire, July 27).

Under his agreement with EPA’s ethics office, Ross has committed to not “participate personally and substantially” in matters related to the Wisconsin Department of Justice for one year after his confirmation.

Another Trump pick appearing at the hearing will be Jeff Baran, a Democrat renominated for a new five-year term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Baran has served on the commission since 2014, and his current term is set to expire next year.

If confirmed, he would be the second NRC commissioner to be handed a new term by Trump after Kristine Svinicki, who was also selected as chairwoman of the agency earlier this year.

Schedule: The hearing will be Wednesday, Sept. 20, at 10 a.m. in 406 Dirksen.

Witnesses: Michael Dourson, Matthew Leopold, William Wehrum and David Baran.

Reporters Kevin Bogardus, Corbin Hiar, Sam Mintz and Ariel Wittenberg contributed..