Senators to hear from 2 hot-button EPA picks this week

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, October 2, 2017

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will try again Wednesday to hold a confirmation hearing for candidates for four top U.S. EPA jobs, joined at the witness table by a Nuclear Regulatory Commission member up for a second term.

The first hearing, set for Sept. 20, was postponed after the Senate abruptly cut short its workweek. As previously scheduled, the session will cover President Trump’s picks for leading EPA’s offices of air, water and chemical safety, as well as the position of general counsel (E&E Daily, Sept. 18).

The hearing figures to be polarized along party lines, with two of the nominees drawing especially barbed opposition from environmental and public health organizations.

In a nine-page letter late last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council and three other environmental groups told senators that William Wehrum was “not fit” to head EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, based on his record with the agency during the George W. Bush administration (E&E Daily, Sept. 20).

Wehrum, now an attorney in private practice, has not replied to requests for comment. Speaking on his behalf, an EPA spokeswoman highlighted his 31 years of experience in the environmental field as an engineer, attorney and federal administrator.

On Wednesday, EPW Republicans can also be expected to tout that record, which has drawn praise from people like Jeff Holmstead, the George W. Bush administration air chief who brought Wehrum to the agency, and John Cruden, who headed the Justice Department’s environmental branch in the final years of the Obama administration. More than eight months into Trump’s administration, they could also stress the importance of getting a Senate-confirmed leadership slate in place at EPA.

Democrats will likely underscore Wehrum’s work on behalf of industries regulated by EPA and other federal agencies. Only last week, he was in federal court arguing against Obama administration standards intended to protect workers from inhaling sometimes deadly silica particles (Greenwire, Sept. 26).

Similar questions about industry connections continue to dog the nomination of Michael Dourson, Trump’s choice to lead the Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Office. During a 15-year career at EPA, Dourson rose to become associate director of the agency’s environmental criteria and assessment office.

He went on to found Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), a nonprofit consulting firm that worked to swiftly evaluate chemical hazards. Following reports on TERA’s links to chemical manufacturers, tobacco companies and other industry interests, Dourson closed the firm and went into academia.

Even so, he has continued to work closely with the chemical makers he would be tasked with regulating if confirmed for the EPA post, according to financial disclosures filed with the Office of Government Ethics. An online petition urging lawmakers to “Dump Dourson” had drawn almost 16,000 signatures as of Friday, up by about 5,000 in the last two weeks, according to a spokeswoman for the California-based Center for Environmental Health, which is spearheading the campaign.

The other two nominees are less controversial.

Matthew Leopold, Trump’s nominee to be general counsel at EPA, served at the Justice Department from 2007 to 2013 and then served as the top lawyer at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from 2013 to 2015.

Currently based in Tallahassee, Fla., he has since been of counsel to Carlton Fields and has had clients that have had dealings with EPA in the past, such as chemicals giant BASF, utility company Florida Power & Light Co. and automaker Ford Motor Co., according to his financial disclosure form.

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).

If confirmed, both men have agreed to step back for a year from any involvement in matters in which they are directly involved in their current jobs, according to ethics agreements submitted to OGE. Wehrum and Dourson have made similar commitments.

Also in line to face the committee is Jeff Baran, a Democrat whom Trump recently renominated for a new five-year term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Baran has been at the NRC since 2014, and his current term is set to expire next year.

Schedule: The hearing will be Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 10 a.m. in 406 Dirksen.

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

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