Partisan Vote Advances Bush Nominee to Head EPA Air Office

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 26, 2006 (ENS) Ė The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today voted 10-8 along party lines to approve the nomination of William Wehrum to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyís Office of Air and Radiation. Democrats vowed to block a final confirmation vote on the former utility industry lawyer, who has emerged as the latest target for critics of the Bush administrationís air pollution policies.

Wehrum has served as a senior political appointee in the EPA air office since 2001 and as acting administrator since last August.

Wehrum

Bill Wehrum is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's acting assistant administrator in the Office of Air and Radiation. (Photo courtesy Diesel Technology Forum)
He has been nominated to replace former EPA air chief Jeff Holmstead. Both men previously worked for the law firm Latham & Watkins, which often represents electric utilities.

Democrats say the EPAís air policies reflect the industry ties of the two political appointees, rather than the EPAís mission to protect public health and the environment.

"When it comes to choosing between the public interest and the special interests, Mr. Wehrum has chosen his friends in industry over and over again," said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.

Boxer said she would put a hold on the nomination and prevent a confirmation vote in the full Senate, a move that would likely prompt President George W. Bush to give Wehrum a recess appointment.

Republicans said critics were unfairly using Wehrumís nomination as a referendum on the Bush administrationís clean air policies.

"I donít think that peopleís difference of opinion with the administration Ö should be attributed to Mr. Wehrum," said Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican.

Wehrum has followed the Presidentís policies, added Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, and "those policies were determined by the voters of the United States in 2004."

Committee Chairman James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said Wehrumís qualifications are "unchallenged."

"He has faced continual attacks from the extremist environmental groups because of his good work at EPA," Inhofe said. "That in and of itself is enough for me to support his nomination, but his record also stands up to any nonpartisan scrutiny."

Democrats specifically criticized Wehrumís key role in devising the administrationís mercury rule as well as major revisions to the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program.

On mercury, the EPA adopted a rule that employs an emissions trading plan for the toxic metal, a decision that will allow some facilities to avoid cutting emissions for more than a decade.

power plant

Mercury is emitted by coal-burning power plants such as the Independence power plant in Arkansas. (Photo courtesy Entergy Arkansas)
Industry groups contend stricter regulation is not affordable given current technology and note the regulation is the first ever to address mercury emissions from power plants.

But states and environmentalists have sued to block the mercury rule because they believe it is too lax, and both the EPA Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office have released scathing reports on how political appointees manipulated the regulatory process to favor industry positions.

The Bush administration revisions to the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program have also been controversial.

The program, which was devised to ensure that the oldest, dirtiest power plants install advanced emissions controls when they make major modifications, has long been a thorn in industryís side, and there is agreement that the program can be unpredictable.

But the administrationís New Source Review changes have drawn the ire of nearly every interested party except the industry, and last month a federal appellate court blocked a major industry-friendly revision to the program.

The court handed down a stinging rebuke of the regulation, which it called "contrary to the plain language" of the Clean Air Act.

Wehrumís record at EPA is "simply too pro-polluter" for him to be put in charge of the agencyís air office, said Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat.

"We are taking someone who turned our rules upside down and saying he is the right person to guard the air for the people of this country?" Boxer said. "I donít personally think so."

Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent and the ranking minority member of the committee, said Wehrum has "lost sight of the environmental function of the EPA."

"It is rare for me to opposes a Presidentís nominee but unfortunately this nomineeís record at EPA has left me with little choice," Jeffords told colleagues at the hearing.

truck

The EPA's Office of Air and Radiation is responsible for air pollution such as the diesel exhaust from trucks. (Photo credit unknown)
Environmentalists expressed disappointment with the vote. Last week a coalition of 13 environmental and public health advocates sent the committee a letter urging members to oppose Wehrumís nomination.

Some had hoped Senator Lincoln Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican often at odds with his party on environmental issues, would join Democrats on the panel and block the nomination.

Wehrum is a qualified and experience nominee, Chafee said in a statement, and opposing his confirmation would not change the administrationís environmental policy.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group clean air advocate Emily Figdor said her organization was "particularly disappointed that Senator Chafee voted to approve someone who has worked to undercut clean air protections."

"We commend the senators who voted against Mr. Wehrum today in order to protect the nationís air quality, public health, and environment," Figdor said. " We urge the full Senate to reject his confirmation."

Testifying on April 5, Wehrum told the senators that he has a personal as well as a professional interest in clean air. "Running is one of my few pastimes that has survived the last several years of engineering, law school, law practice, and government service," he said.

"I run well over 1000 miles in a typical year. Most of this takes place within inches of major roadways here in the DC area. I can tell you that this experience has indelibly impressed upon me the need and value of clean air," Wehrum said. "The occasional smoking truck or bus and the occasional smoking stack are stark reminders to me of the progress we have made and the challenges that remain."