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The Energy 202: Senators from both parties press EPA to limit two toxic chemicals

with Paulina Firozi


One-fifth of the Senate is pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to do more to prevent two toxic chemicals from getting into Americans' drinking water — after a report last week indicating the agency is not going to restrict them under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In a letter led by Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), 20 senators from both sides of the aisle urged the agency to develop standards for a pair of chemicals — perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, more commonly known as PFOA and PFOS — found in millions of Americans' drinking water. They are demanding the federal government remove these toxic chemicals from drinking water and regularly test for them. 

“EPA’s inaction would be a major setback to states and affected communities,” the senators wrote to acting agency administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Therefore, we urge you to develop enforceable federal drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS.”

The letter is the latest escalation of tensions between members of Congress and the EPA over the regulation of a class of chemicals that has proven to be a headache for Trump administration officials at the agency. The EPA came under criticism last year for delaying the release of a health study on the chemicals after a White House officials warned in an internal email that its release could turn out to be a “public relations nightmare.” The EPA earned more bad press after kicking reporters out of a forum on the issue in May.

The letter Friday puts Wheeler in a potentially tough spot. His nomination to officially become the EPA’s head official — and drop the “acting” title — is up for a vote this week in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Capito sits on the panel, where Republicans hold a slim one-vote majority.

Capito met with Wheeler this past week seeking reassurance about the PFOA and PFOS management plan. Capito spokesman Tyler Hernandez said the senator still “plans to support his nomination.”

When asked if she expects the EPA to reverse course, Shaheen said in an interview: “I'm not optimistic but I'm hopeful.”“I hope what they're gonna do is reconsider their decision,” she added. “Safe drinking water, so people feel like they can turn on the tap and they can drink water without having them have an adverse effect on their health or their family's health — I think people in this country believe that's fundamental to being able to live in America.”

In response to Politico's report that the agency was not going to invoke the Safe Drinking Water Act to restrict the chemicals, the agency emphasized it has not finalized its management plan. 

David Ross, the assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Water, said in a statement “any information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature.”

Yet the number of senators who signed the letter is an indication of how widespread pollution from this class of chemicals has become. Once considered a wonder for their ability to repel both oil and water, the chemicals were widely used by manufacturers to make products with nonstick surfaces and by the military in specialized foams to put out jet-fuel fires.

But the chemicals also had dangerous downsides for human health, having been linked to increased cholesterol levels, low birth weights, thyroid hormone disruption and various cancers, according to the agency.

And House Democrats, who now control that chamber, are also signaling they may use their new majority power to try to compel the EPA to regulate the chemicals presence in drinking water. Late last month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the EPA, renewed a request for information from the Trump administration on its efforts to stall the release of the chemical hazard study, while a bipartisan group of House members formed a new task force on the chemicals.

“It is a travesty that we are even having a conversation,” said Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.), who helped create the task force. “We're going in the wrong direction.”

His upstate New York district includes the village of Hoosick Falls, whose residents in recent years discovered their tap water had been contaminated with PFOA. Delgado, too, asked the EPA in a letter to determine a maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

The other Republican besides Capito to sign the Senate letter was Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Both senators face reelection in 2020.

In 2017, Tillis and North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, opposed the nomination of a University of Cincinnati professor and chemical industry consultant named Michael Dourson as the EPA's top chemical safety official. They did so over concerns about his record of finding little or no human health risks for many chemicals.

Drinking water concerns are acute in North Carolina, which is home to a military base whose water supply is contaminated by an unregulated compound known as Gen X — the trade name for a chemical similar to PFOA and PFOS. The latest defense reauthorization bill for a health impact study on the chemicals set to start this summer.

Capito, similarly, represents a state with its own water contamination issues. PFOA used by DuPont to manufacture Teflon in Parkersburg, W.Va. has worked its way into the water supply, resulting in a $671 million payment to settle thousands of lawsuits.


— “Now brewed with wind power for a better tomorrow”: During the more than five minutes of airtime Anheuser-Busch had for commercials during the Super Bowl, the company highlighted its commitment to wind energy. In one ad, a Clydesdale-drawn Budweiser wagon appears in the foreground of a landscape dotted with wind turbines. “Wind never felt better,” the ad reads. The advertising push follows the company’s 2017 announcement that it would get all its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The company also angered the corn lobby with its message in several other Super Bowl spots that Bud Light is “brewed with no corn syrup.” The company also called out competitors Miller Lite and Coors Light for using the product. In a tweet, the National Corn Growers Association said corn farmers were “disappointed” by the move.

— Venezuela sanctions worsening shortfall of dense oil: When the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, it left U.S. refiners on the hook to replace the oil that comes from the United States' second-largest source of crude imports, the Wall Street Journal reports. What’s more, U.S. shale companies “produce a crude that is low in sulfur — or ‘sweet’ — and has a low density — ‘light’ in industry parlance. Light, sweet crude is abundant in the U.S., compared with the ‘heavy,’ or dense, oil that countries such as Venezuela provide,” per the report. “By choking off an important oil channel, the sanctions could stifle output from U.S. refiners, which in the past year have churned out record amounts of gasoline supplies, leading to low prices at the pump … But analysts warn that a prolonged shortage of heavy crudes would push refiners to choose between paying a premium for heavy oil and cutting their processing rates.”


— More on the mysterious kerfuffle outside Zinke’s D.C. home: On a night last November, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was grilling and watching a football game with friends when there was commotion on the street outside his Capitol Hill home. One of his guests thought it was caused by a reporter, The Post’s Lisa Rein, Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears reported over the weekend. In one of two U.S. Park Police reports from that night, a guest of Zinke’s told police there was an individual in a Mercedes SUV who “stated he was from The Washington Post.” The guest described the “reporter” as “male, aggressive, agitated and a screamer.”

What really happened: “In fact, there was no reporter out front,” The Post team reports. “Two of Zinke’s neighbors had confronted the driver of a large black SUV that was idling outside the house and taking up more than one parking space. After being berated by the neighbors, the driver, an off-duty New York police officer playing chauffeur for one of Zinke’s guests, eventually drove away.”

What Zinke said: Given the media scrutiny he was under in the weeks before his resignation, "It seemed a little too coincidental for me to have an incident like that and have it not be a reporter," Zinke told The Post. He added, though, that he never established there was a reporter there. 

— Post-shutdown watch: The partial government shutdown reportedly led to between $10 million and $11 million in losses for the National Parks as well as a drastic drop in morale for park employees, according to an internal email reported by the Hill. The losses largely came from a drop in revenue from parks in California and Hawaii, including Yosemite and Muir Woods and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “Our work has become increasingly stressful. For some, the shutdown was a much-needed relief, for others the shutdown added a new dimension of stress, anxiety, anger,” NPS regional fee manager Cindy David said in an email to Pacific West Region staff, per the report.

— Mining plan scrapped: Canadian mining company Glacier Lake Resources Inc. has dropped a plan to mine in land carved out of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by Trump. The company’s president and chief executive told HuffPost, which initially reported on the acquisition of a 200-acre parcel of land in June, that it “dropped the project a while back.” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reported on the company’s financial struggles. The company disclosed to shareholders in March 2018 that it “has accumulated a deficit of $4,779,688 and has not generated any revenue since inception, and expects to incur further losses in the development of its business.”

The sunflower sea star has disappeared from the Pacific Ocean, impacting the area's marine ecology. (Video: Hakai Institute & Hakai Magazine)

— The sunflower sea star has disappeared from the Pacific: This sea star has all but vanished from the Pacific coast, six years after it was hit by a wasting disease, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. The disappearance also coincided with a warming event in the Pacific Ocean that lasted two years, until 2015, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances. The study said divers would find “anywhere from two to 100 stars” during dives from 2006 to 2014. After that, none were seen in 60 percent of surveys in Washington and there were no sightings at all in surveys in California and Oregon.

The disappearance’s domino effect: At the same time sunflower sea stars started vanishing, the population of their favorite prey, purple sea urchins, increased. “The voracious urchins feed on vegetation that is key to the ecosystem in that area of the Pacific — bull kelp forests that support young fish, snails, crabs, birds and a range of other animals …[W]ith sea stars virtually annihilated, the urchins spread out across the ocean floor by the tens of thousands and gobbled the forests. The affected areas have a grim nickname: urchin barrens.”


Coming Up

  • Politico hosts an event on clean energy innovation on Wednesday.
  • Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler is scheduled to give the keynote address at the Environmental Law 2019 conference, which will be held Thursday and Friday.
  • FERC chairman Neil Chatterjee is scheduled to speak at the Energy Storage Association’s 2019 Energy Storage Policy Forum on Feb. 13.
Punxsutawney Phil delivered good news on Groundhog Day. On Feb. 2 he failed to see his shadow and thus predicted an early spring is on its way. (Video: Reuters)

— It will be an early spring, Punxsutawney Phil says: Here’s what Post deputy weather editor Angela Fritz wrote over the weekend, calling Phil’s prediction the “longest-running syndicated rerun show in America.” “Phil, or some version of him, has been predicting the weather since 1887. He goes with ‘six more weeks of winter’ 85 percent of the time, probably because on Feb. 2, there really are six more weeks of winter, you know, seasonally speaking,” Fritz writes. “Despite all this, the thing that worries me isn’t that people care about the groundhog. It is certainly an annual tradition, and it’s not like Groundhog Day is going anywhere. What worries me is that people hear the groundhog said “early spring” and they might actually believe there is truth in it.”