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October 5, 2017

Senate EPW Committee Hearing on Nominations of EPA Officials

Lynn L. Bergeson

On October 4, 2017, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) held a hearing on the nomination of four U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials:

  • Michael Dourson, Ph.D., for Assistant Administrator (AA) of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP);
  • William L. Wehrum, Esquire, for AA of the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR);
  • Matthew Leopold, Esquire, for General Counsel; and
  • David Ross, Esquire, for AA of the Office of Water (OW).

More information on the backgrounds of these nominees is available in our blog item Senate EPW Committee to Hold Hearing on Nominations of EPA Officials.  Some of the highlights from the hearing portions on each of the nominees are below.  Dourson was questioned and criticized the most heavily, followed by Wehrum.

Michael Dourson, Ph.D., for AA of OCSPP

Dr. Dourson faced a barrage of criticism and questions from several EPW Committee members.  The first was from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who stated that Dourson had relied on underrated exposure data when he was studying the dangers of smoking for Phillip Morris.  Senator Tammy Duckworth’s (D-IL) line of questioning was equally aggressive, referring to certain work Dourson conducted in Chicago as “pseudoscience” when he concluded there was no risk of adverse health effects.  Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) claimed that the nomination of Dourson for a position that seeks to protect families from pesticides and toxic chemicals was “shocking,” as his track record has shown him to be a “corporate lackey” working only for the results that suit the corporations for which he conducted the assessments. 

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was brought to tears recalling the fate of her constituents in Hoosick Falls, NY, regarding their experiences with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the water supply.  Gillibrand asked Dourson whether he believed PFOA has been linked to kidney cancer and if he would uphold EPA’s standards for PFOA exposure.  Dourson replied that PFOA has been linked to some forms of cancer, science has progressed, and new standards are necessary.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Dourson point blank whether chlorpyrifos has been linked to brain damage in children, as Dourson has worked on the safety aspects of this chemical for the chemical manufacturing community.  Dourson replied that he was aware of studies indicating some association and that the studies making these associations were part of a collaborative project that included government scientists.  Merkley noted Dourson’s involvement with several chemical trade groups and questioned whether he could be impartial.

Many of the Committee members asked why his recommendations on safe exposures to certain chemicals, including chlorpyrifos, trichloroethylene (TCE), and 1,4-dioxane, were many times higher than those of EPA’s standards.  Dourson’s response was that EPA in some instances does not use the most up to date science and data.  Dourson stated that he is committed to using the most credible and up to date science, as well as independent peer review, which is why many of his assessments differ from those at EPA.  He also noted that the use of good science should be the touchstone of everything that EPA does and is committed to working to ensure that the best science is considered and reviewed “even for the most vulnerable in our population,” through a transparent and a collaborative process. 

Ranking Member Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Merkley, and Booker all asked Dourson to recuse himself from working on any chemical issues on which he had been contracted to work in the past on industry’s behalf, claiming that to do less would be unethical and pose a danger to the health and welfare of the American public.  Dourson replied that he would do what was requested of him by the EPA ethics officials, and that he will bring “new science and thinking” into the Agency. 

Senator Marion Rounds (R-SD) requested that Dourson keep Congress apprised on implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which Dourson confirmed he would do.

William Wehrum, for AA of OAR

In his opening statement, Wehrum signaled his intent to follow the “clear agenda” set by President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.  He also pledged to adhere to three key objectives set forth by Administrator Pruitt.  First, he noted that EPA’s role is to administer laws faithfully and to avoid the temptation to bootstrap its own powers and tools through rulemaking.  Second, he stated that EPA must “acknowledge, respect, and promote the critical role of the states in implementing Federal environmental laws and in protecting human health and the environment.”  Third, he emphasized the important role that the public plays in the regulatory process.

Ranking Member Senator Carper provided a particularly harsh critique of Wehrum’s fitness for office.  Although stating that he believed Wehrum to be a good person, he opined that he did not think him an appropriate choice for the OAR post, stating that “he defers too frequently to industry, suppresses scientific information, and declines to respond to Congressional inquiry.”  During a second round of questioning, Carper asked Wehrum to defend actions that, in Carper’s view, demonstrate that he is not faithfully committed to implementing the Clean Air Act (CAA). 

Democratic Senators’ questions to Wehrum belied their doubts about his adequacy to serve as the AA, while Republican committee members’ questions unsurprisingly were less severe.  When asked about potential conflicts, Wehrum noted that he would be required to comply with comprehensive ethics rules, if confirmed.  Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) cited a court decision on EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) establishing emission limits for coal-fired power plants, and that the decision compels EPA to consider the costs of compliance in setting such standards.  To this Wehrum replied that EPA “absolutely” must follow the law and implement two goals:  to protect human health and the environment and to promote economic growth. 

Senator Merkley asked whether Wehrum believed that human activity is the major factor in climate change.  Wehrum responded that he believed it was a factor, but that human activity was not clearly the major factor. 

David Ross Esquire, for AA of OW, and Matthew Leopold, Esquire, for General Counsel

In stark contrast to the cross-examination endured by Dourson and Wehrum, Committee Members directed only a few, soft ball questions to David Ross and Matthew Leopold, the nominees for AA of OW and EPA General Counsel, respectively.  Ross currently serves as an Assistant Attorney General and Director of the Environmental Protection Unit for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. His water quality law and policy career also includes positions with the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office and the Wyoming Water and Natural Resources Division, as well as positions held in private environmental law practice.  Given Ross’ extensive experience in state government, it came as no surprise that his testimony emphasized the importance of cooperative federalism and the need for EPA to reach “outside the beltway” and improve its collaboration with state regulators.  Ross acknowledged that there are divergent views on how to best manage U.S. water resources, and that he is committed to identifying approaches that will protect public health and the environment without hindering economic growth.  Ross is likely to be confirmed without much resistance, although it is unclear at this time when his nomination will be scheduled for a Senate floor vote. 

Leopold is currently Of Counsel at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, P.A., in their government law and consulting practice group.  He previously served as General Counsel for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from 2013 to 2015.  Leopold’s testimony included expressions of his respect for environmental protection and the rule of law, the pride he has taken in helping to restore the Everglades ecosystem, and his work on reparations related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some press outlets are reporting that Dourson’s nomination may be at risk.  Given the simple majority vote needed to progress to a full Senate vote, this is by no means clear.  What is clear is that the hearing yesterday was as emotional as we have viewed in a long time, and a vivid depiction of how environmental issues, particularly issues involving chemicals and exposure to them, remain divisive, emotional, and political.