THE LIGHTBULB

Wendy Hartley says she was once "cautiously optimistic" that the Environmental Protection Agency would ban several uses of a toxic chemical that killed her 21-year-old son. Now she's a part of a lawsuit suing the agency to make sure that happens. 

Hartley met with then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt in May to discuss the death of her son Kevin Hartley, a trained contractor who died in 2017 from exposure to the fumes of a paint stripper while refinishing a bathtub. Though the EPA under President Trump had once postponed banning some uses of methylene chloride in paint stripper, Hartley says she and other environmental advocates thought Pruitt was "receptive to what we had to say." 

A day after their meeting, the EPA announced it “intends to finalize” a ban originally proposed under President Barack Obama.  A week after that, Pruitt reiterated that pledge during a Senate hearing.

But now, optimism about getting a nearly full ban of the use of the chemical has evaporated.

Hartley is one of two mothers of men dead from airborne exposure to the toxic compound who are now suing the EPA to keep that promise. They teamed up with the advocacy groups Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and Vermont Public Interest Research Group to file lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Vermont to file suit on Monday.

Promise or no promise, they argue the EPA is obligated under law to restrict the use of any chemical its scientists find to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to human health. Agency researchers during the Obama administration determined that it was too dangerous for do-it-yourselfers and most professional contractors to remove paint with products containing methylene chloride. The EPA found 49 people in the United States died of exposure to methylene chloride during paint and coating removal between 1976 and 2016.

The lawsuit follows a decision in December by the EPA to move forward with banning the chemical's use by regular consumers but still allow commercial operators to continue using the product as long as they underwent training.

That exception was too much for public-health advocates who were seeking — and felt they had been promised by Pruitt — a more comprehensive ban.

“It's very much a breach of trust,” said Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families. 

But the EPA leader who made that commitment is no longer in charge. Since July, acting chief Andrew Wheeler had led the agency after the White House forced Pruitt to resign amid numerous ethics investigations.

Safer Chemicals requested a meeting with Wheeler shortly after he was named acting administrator, but was offered time with one of his staffers. A meeting ultimately did not transpire because of scheduling issues. Separately, the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped coordinate the original meeting between Pruitt and the families, said it also asked in July to arrange a meeting between Wheeler and some of the mothers, but was not offered one.

"Acting Administrator Wheeler appreciates EDF reaching out on the regulation and for their help arranging a meeting with family members, and we look forward to continuing to work with EDF on both," EPA spokesman John Konkus wrote by email.

Wheeler was nominated this month by Trump to head the agency on a long-term basis. His confirmation hearing  Wednesday is shaping up to be more contested than once thought, because the acting chief has pursued several of the most controversial policies adopted under Pruitt. 

“After Scott Pruitt's destructive tenure, I urged Andrew Wheeler to right the ship at @EPA,” tweeted Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “But on issue after issue, he has kept the agency hurdling down a dangerous path, putting public health at risk.”

The EPA's slow-footed response toward the paint-stripping compound stands in contrast that of home improvement stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot, which voluntarily decided to discontinue selling paint strippers containing the chemical.

That holdup has come at a cost. Since the Obama administration originally proposed banning consumer and most commercial uses of the chemical, at least three people in addition to Kevin Hartley died of breathing in methylene chloride fumes, according to media reports.

Part of the delay may come from the fact that the Defense Department has lobbied to carve out an exemption for the toxic chemical’s commercial use, The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis reported last week.

Manufacturers of methylene chloride have also publicly pressed the EPA to stop short of a full ban. Wendy Hartley foresees a long court fight because of the influence of chemical makers.

“I'm pretty sure that they're going to drag this out,” she said, “because that's what the chemical industry wants.”

POWER PLAYS

MORE ON WHEELER'S CONFIRMATION HEARING:

— White House approves confirmation prep: The White House's Office of Management and Budget told the EPA over the weekend that it is legally authorized to use agency resources to prepare Wheeler for his confirmation hearing, even though funding for the agency has run out of the funding during the partial government shutdown. "This work constitutes an excepted activity that may continue during the lapse in appropriations," OMB's Mark Paoletta told the agency by email, arguing that the work is necessary for both the president and Congress to discharge their duties. In a letter last week, Senate Democrats warned the EPA it may be "afoul" of spending law by getting Wheeler ready for his confirmation during the shutdown.

— “Profoundly unfair”: The leaders of nine environmental organizations are calling on the Senate to delay its consideration of Wheeler amid the partial government shutdown. “It is profoundly unfair for Mr. Wheeler to audition for a promotion to lead an agency while the entire agency workforce is locked out and denied their paychecks.” write the group leaders, which include John Podesta, founder and director of the Center for American Progress; Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club and Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

— Meanwhile at the Interior Department: Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has until the end of the month to issue a new order to maintain eight temporary appointments, E&E News reports. Those agency appointments, including the heads of Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, will otherwise expire on Jan. 31.

— New job for old interior secretary: Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has a new gig at a private investment company, North Carolina-based Artillery One. The firm said Monday Zinke was hired as managing director to look into “investing opportunities” in energy, financial technology and cybersecurity, the Associated Press reports. Zinke told the AP he was “glad to be out of the swamp and free from the chains of office.” 

— Trump targets Democratic trip to Puerto Rico: A long-planned Democratic delegation to Puerto Rico became fodder for conservative criticism over the weekend because of how the trip aligned with the partial government shutdown. “I’ve been here all weekend,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “A lot of the Democrats were in Puerto Rico celebrating something. I don’t know, maybe they’re celebrating the shutdown.”

What's actually happening: “According to members who participated, the three-day event featured informational sessions on the damage from the 2017 hurricane, meetings with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, presentations on the controversial oversight board created to meet the island’s bond obligations, and information on how residents of territories can’t access many of the government services available to residents of the 50 states,” The Post’s David Weigel reports. Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) said he saw “an island that still needs a lot of help … A lot of preexisting challenges here were exacerbated by the hurricane.”  

THERMOMETER

— Ice is shrinking at an alarming rate in Antarctica: Antarctic glaciers are losing six times as much ice as they were four decades ago as a result of an influx of warm ocean water, according to new research, a finding that “could mean sea levels are poised to rise more quickly than predicted in coming decades,” The Post’s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report. Beginning in 2009, the Antarctic began losing 252 billion tons of ice per year, a steep rise from the 40 billion tons melting per year from 1979 to 1989. Not only is West Antarctica losing a lot of ice, but the most striking finding is that East Antarctica, which Mooney and Dennis write “contains by far the continent’s most ice,” is also experiencing severe melting.

“I don’t want to be alarmist,” said Eric Rignot, leader of the study and an Earth-systems scientist for the University of California at Irvine and NASA. “The places undergoing changes in Antarctica are not limited to just a couple places … They seem to be more extensive than what we thought. That, to me, seems to be reason for concern.”

OIL CHECK

— Trump can’t halt coal plant shutdowns...: Despite efforts from Republicans and the administration to try to bolster the coal industry, more U.S. coal-fired power plants shuttered in the first two years of the Trump administration than in his predecessor’s first term, Reuters reports. Data from Reuters and the U.S. Energy Information Administration found more than 23,400 megawatts of coal-fired generation shut down in 2017-2018 compared with 14,900 megawatts in 2009-2012. “The number of U.S. coal plants has continued to decline every year since coal capacity peaked at just over 317,400 MW in 2011, and is expected to keep falling as consumers demand power from cleaner and less expensive sources of energy,” per the report. “Generators said they plan to shut around 8,422 MW of coal-fired power and 1,500 MW of nuclear in 2019, while adding 10,900 MW of wind, 8,200 MW of solar and 7,500 MW of gas.”

...nor is making life easier for U.S. automakers...: As the Detroit Auto Show began, a cloud was hanging over an American auto industry that could face a challenging year ahead. As executives deal with a shifting consumer needs, some automakers have moved to halt production at sedan-oriented factories, The Post’s Brian Fung reports. “But that has put them in the crosshairs of President Trump and others in Washington, who decried stoppages at factories, especially those in critical swing states such as Ohio,” he writes. Other administration policies may also deliver challenges for carmakers, such as the targeting of electric-car incentives that “could put U.S. automakers at a disadvantage when many foreign firms, such as Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, are moving ambitiously to electrify their portfolio of vehicles."

...nor American steel producers: Despite Trump’s claims that steelmakers are doing well, steel prices have seen a drop in the months since the administration imposed a 25 percent tariff on imports, the New York Times reports, falling to levels seen before tariffs were announced in March. And hiring in the industry has not improved. Even as several steel mills opened and restarted last year, industry employment in November was 4 percent lower than four years ago, the Times reports, citing the American Iron and Steel Institute. “Caterpillar, the farm equipment manufacturer, said last year that it would face $200 million in additional costs because of the steel tariffs,” per the report. “General Motors slashed its profits forecast for 2018 because of higher steel costs. Many businesses chose alternative materials or delayed investments, putting pressure on steel prices, which have since fallen.”

— PG&E’s wildfire woes: The Post’s Hamza Shaban and Steven Mufson have more details on the announcement from California’s largest utility that it intends to file for bankruptcy amid billions in potential liability for deadly wildfires across the state. Pacific Gas and Electric was already on federal probation following a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif, a five-year probation that goes through this year. “The California wildfires, which have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes, have led to a surge in insurance claims,” they write. “PG&E estimates that it could be held liable for more than $30 billion, according to the SEC filing, which does not include potential punitive damages, fines or damages tied to future claims. The company’s wildfire insurance for 2018 was only $1.4 billion.” The company also said any alternatives to bankruptcy would not serve in its best interests and “would not address the fundamental issues and challenges PG&E faces.”

— VW hopes to avoid tariffs: Volkswagen’s chief executive Herbert Diess said he hopes an $800 million investment the company has made to build a new electric vehicle in Chattanooga, Tenn., will help the automaker avoid tariffs between the United States and Europe, Reuters reports. “The German automaker said it is adding 1,000 new jobs and that electric vehicle production in Tennessee will begin in 2022,” per the report.

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be EPA administrator on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development holds a hearing on Wednesday.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is scheduled to hold a meeting on Thursday
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center is scheduled to hold an event on energy innovation on Thursday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Snurlough photos snapped: If you’re in the Washington area, The Energy 202 hopes you enjoyed the first major snow day of the season on Monday. The Post’s Angela Fritz compiled a great array of photos that readers shared with Capital Weather Gang on social media with the hashtag #snurlough.