Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has met with few environmental groups throughout his tenure. More often, he has conferred with industry representatives.
But this week, the EPA chief agreed to meet with a different sort of lobbyist: the mothers of two men who died from exposure to paint strippers containing a toxic chemical.
The result: Two days later, the EPA signaled on Thursday it will follow through on an Obama-era proposal to ban paint strippers containing a toxic chemical — leaving Democratic lawmakers, environmental groups and the families of victims cautiously optimistic they won Pruitt over, Brady Dennis and I reported Thursday.
“I wanted to use Kevin’s story to try to save more lives,” one of the mothers, Wendy Hartley, told The Washington Post in an interview. Her son Kevin Hartley was a trained contractor who died last year at age 21 while refinishing a bathtub with White Lightning Low Odor Stripper near Nashville.
“We do not need any more lives lost due to this," Hartley said. "And if I could tell Kevin’s story and get someone to listen to it and do something about, then I was willing to tell his story.”
Since taking office, Pruitt has been laser-focused on undoing environmental and safety rules proposed by President Barack Obama’s administration. But the EPA’s announcement that it "intends to finalize" a proposed ban on certain uses of the chemical, called methylene chloride, would be an exception.
The chemical, used by professional contractors and do-it-yourselfers to remove paint, has been linked to dozens of deaths – including 12 people between 2000 and 2011 who specialize in refinishing bathtubs, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
The EPA first proposed banning the use of methylene chloride in paint and coating removal products in the waning days of Obama’s second term. A year earlier, Congress had granted the EPA new powers to restrict the use of that and other chemicals in an amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the nation’s main chemical safety law.
But in December, the Pruitt’s EPA indefinitely postponed bans on certain uses of methylene chloride and two other deadly chemicals often found in consumer products. For a time, it seemed like the ban was headed to the trash bin, along with many other Obama-era rules after President Trump’s election.
That delay in December kicked off an effort to salvage it. Several Democratic lawmakers asked Pruitt about the chemical and urged him to ban it in a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill last month. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.)asked Pruitt if he had anything to say to the people whose family members died given the lack of EPA action.
Pruitt didn’t directly address that question, but he made clear that the agency hadn’t abandoned its evaluation of the chemical’s safety. “There has been no decision at this time,” he said at the April 26 hearing.
That did little to satisfy Pallone. “Look, you say you’re going to do something, but these chemicals are still on the shelves, and they make a mockery of [chemical reform] legislation that this committee works so hard on,” Pallone said. “And it makes a mockery of EPA. You have the power immediately to get this chemical off the shelves. And you’re not doing it. And you should do it.”
The lobbying effort also continued behind the scenes. After the hearings, the Environmental Defense Fund contacted Pruitt’s office on behalf of the families of Kevin Hartley and and Drew Wynne, 31, was running a cold-brew coffee business in Charleston, S.C., when he died last year while stripping paint from the floor of a walk-in refrigerator using a product called Goof Off.
The group asked for a meeting with the administrator and the EPA agreed. So this past Tuesday morning, Wendy Hartley, along with Cindy Wynne and her other son Brian Wynne, met Pruitt and several of his aides at his office in EPA headquarters.
The families brought with them photographs and the death certificates of the two men, and explained to Pruitt what happened to them.
Pruitt “was very attentive to us,” Cindy Wynne told The Post in an interview earlier this week before the EPA’s announcement. “He was somewhat surprised when we showed him the cans from Lowe’s,” where her son had purchased the paint stripper.
Her son, Brian, asked Pruitt if he agreed that methylene chloride was a problem. Pruitt responded, “I do.”
But when pressed on whether he would finalize the ban, the administrator did not make a commitment, the family members said.
“We all have the same sense that for a moment there, we felt like there was positive momentum,” Brian Wynne said. “And then that went out of the room pretty quickly when he was steadfast against the word ‘ban.’ ”
In an interview after the announcement Thursday, the brother said he was now “cautiously optimistic” that Pruitt would follow through.
“This is a positive development,” Brian Wynne said. “ It was a surprising one. We certainly didn’t see this coming in our meeting with Administrator Pruitt. But we’re certainly encouraged by this sign that he seems ready to take action.”
Public health and environmental groups also reserved full-throated cheers until the rule’s language is made public and submitted to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which the EPA said will happen “shortly.” Sarah Vogel, EDF's vice president for health, urged the EPA to “move quickly to implement a ban, and that includes ensuring necessary administrative procedures are followed to guarantee a permanent ban and that these products are promptly removed from store shelves.”
The EPA said the “meeting with the families was constructive.”
“It provided the families the opportunity to share with Administrator Pruitt the circumstances in each of their cases and the Administrator the opportunity to hear directly from them,” Wilcox said. “There was an exchange of ideas, and we appreciate EDF reaching out to request the meeting.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the state Rep. Frank Pallone represents.
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— During an Energy 202 Live event on Thursday, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Kevin McIntyre said the Trump administration’s proposal to use the 68-year-old Defense Production Act as a way to keep coal and nuclear power plants running is “perhaps not the most obvious fit" for the law. Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently told Congress the department is “looking very closely” at using the law, which allows the Energy Department to essentially nationalize energy infrastructure during times of war.
In another panel, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told me that while he has not taken a very close look at the plan, “I don’t favor nationalizing anything.”
“But I do think you’ve got to make sure that baseload has access to the grid in a way that works,” he added.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), another panelist with Hoeven, said the term “baseload,” referring to power plants that can run without interruption, “has become a political term.” He added: “I can tell you, having grown up in a utility family, coal-fired generation plants go down, and they don’t go down when it’s planned; they go down, they go out."
— Pruitt watch: White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters that while President Trump is still "pleased with the job that he’s doing as the administrator," the swirling ethical questions “have raised some concerns." Shah added in his comments aboard Air Force One, on the way to Indiana on Thursday: “We’re hopeful and expecting that Administrator Pruitt will be able to answer those."
— Drip, drip: A series of documents tweeted out by a New York Times reporter Thursday revealed details of a dinner Pruitt had in Rome last year with Cardinal George Pell, who is now facing sexual abuse charges. EPA officials learned about the investigation of Pell before the trip, per NYT's Eric Lipton.
FOLLOW ALONG WITH US HERE, as we walk through a FASCINATING collection of documents The NYT has pulled together about a certain dinner in Rome that EPA's Scott Pruitt had last June with Cardinal Pell, who is now facing sexual abuse charges. (PLEASE CREDIT NYT )@LFFriedman pic.twitter.com/IZ4EIu3xfu— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) May 10, 2018
Emails obtained via FOIA show that planning for this dinner started in May 2017. It was not a last minute, Cardinal Pell happen to show up event, as has been reported elsewhere pic.twitter.com/MYXARzj7uv— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) May 10, 2018
Agency staff had vetted the schedule--before the trip--and learned that Cardinal Pell was under investigation.— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) May 10, 2018
— Back to policy: Pruitt said in a memo released Thursday the agency would seek input on the economic impact of enforcing the Clean Air Act as it moves to overhaul how it sets air quality standards. “Pruitt's initiative, laid out in a new memo, would set the stage for substantial changes and legal battles over how the United States enforces its 48-year-old law combating air pollution,” the Associated Press reports.
— The House approved a bill on Thursday to revive the nuclear waste site in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, an effort that has been opposed by lawmakers in the state. The bill, approved by a 340-72 vote, would direct the Energy Department to revive the licensing process for Yucca Mountain to become the nation’s permanent site for nuclear waste being produced by 39 states, per the Associated Press. The bill also calls for a separate plan that would create a temporary storage site in New Mexico or Texas.
The bill now moves to the Senate, where Nevada’s Sens. Dean Heller (R) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D) have vowed to block it. And significantly, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has put his weight behind blocking the Yucca proposal as well.
— Zinke’s sunshine state burn: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reiterated on Thursday Florida will be exempt from the Trump administration’s plan for offshore drilling. When asked by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) during a hearing by a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on whether Florida was still off the table, Zinke said: “I'm committed to … no new oil and gas platforms off the coast of Florida. They are still in the process legally, but I'm committed to that."
"You have to admit it, it looked very political, right, meeting with the governor," Van Hollen told the secretary, referring to Zinke's January meeting with Gov. Rick Scott (R), where Zinke initially stated Florida's coasts would be "off the table."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon warned lawmakers against offshore oil and gas drilling in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, saying it would disturb military operations, The Hill reports. The report released this week noted the area is “an irreplaceable national asset used by DOD to develop and maintain the readiness of our combat forces, and is critical to achieving the objectives contained in the National Defense Strategy.”
— A crappy problem at the National Park Service: The sanctions the Trump administration imposed against seven Russian oligarchs in April may have played a part in delaying the delivery of sewage pump equipment to the National Mall and Memorial Parks headquarters. As a result, National Park Service employees were forced to use portable toilets or facilities in nearby buildings for weeks, HuffPost reports.
— Climate change, scrubbed: Internal changes to a draft Defense Department report muted or removed almost all the references to climate-driven changes in the Arctic and other climate threats to military bases, The Post’s Missy Ryan and Chris Mooney report. An early December 2016 version of the document contained 23 references to the phrase “climate change." But the final version only uses the term once. The other references were changed to “extreme weather,” “climate,” or were omitted all together.
The edits are significant because the Pentagon is seen as one of the few parts of government to still take climate change seriously under Trump. Republicans in Congress even allowed a climate research provision into the last defense authorization bill. “As highlighted in the report, the effects of climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to missions, operational plans, and installations,” Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb said in a statement.
— Climate talk stalemate in Bonn: After two weeks of climate talks in Bonn, Germany, envoys from nearly 200 countries wrapped up without producing a draft rulebook on tackling climate change, instead planning another round of negotiations for later this year. The representatives plan to meet again before an annual conference in Poland in December. “The holdup threatens to unravel three years of work to complete the Paris Agreement,” Bloomberg News reports. “Negotiators are working toward writing a rule book that will help bring the pact into force even as U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to withdraw from the Paris framework.”
— Oil watch: Oil prices maintained their multiyear highs on Friday following Trump’s announcement he would reintroduce sanctions against Iran, per Reuters.
Meanwhile, Bank of America Corp. predicts oil prices could jump to $100 a barrel next year as inventory risks emerge in Iran and in Venezuela. The bank predicts “Brent futures, trading near $77 on Thursday, are set to reach $90 in the second quarter of 2019,” Bloomberg News reports. “As that view hinges on OPEC reviving output and a limited impact on Iran from U.S. sanctions, prices could go even higher, it said, becoming the first Wall Street bank to suggest a return to $100.”
— Another day, another climate lawsuit: Washington state's King County, whose county seat is Seattle, has filed a lawsuit against five major oil and gas companies for their contributions to climate change. The suit targets BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips, attempting to compel them to establish a fund that would cover the costs of efforts to combat the effects of climate change, including storm water management, salmon recovery and public health protection.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to consider the nomination of Aimee Kathryn Jorjani to be Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on May 15.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment holds a hearing on “Legislation Addressing New Source Review Permitting Reform” on May 16.
— Mark the time (with a golden spike): On Thursday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) introduced the Golden Spike 150th Anniversary Act, meant to establish a new historical park at the site the first transcontinential railroad was completed in his home state: