Bill Wehrum, a lobbyist-turned-top air official, is no longer serving at President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. But his tenure is still a matter of great concern for members of Congress and the agency’s internal watchdog.
Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee issued a new report Sunday that claims to have uncovered new evidence that Wehrum violated Trump administration ethics rules, which limit political appointees from dealing with former employers and clients. And that comes as The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports Monday that the EPA’s office of inspector general is also looking into interactions between Wehrum, who until last month led the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, with industry players who lobbied the government to ease carbon pollution limits.
From Eilperin: "The EPA’s inspector general is looking at Wehrum’s interactions with his former law firm as well as several of its clients, who rank among the nation’s major emitters of greenhouse gases linked to climate change, according to two individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter."
The probes highlight the extent to which ethics troubles follow Trump’s environmental deputies — such as former EPA chief Scott Pruitt or interior secretary Ryan Zinke — even after they leave government.
In a letter sent Sunday, Senate Democrats urged the EPA's inspector general “in the strongest possible terms" not to stop probing into Wehrum even though he has left the agency.
The report from Sens. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) delves into how the EPA under Wherum pushed for regulatory changes that had, in turn, been pushed by four different industry groups represented by Wehrum’s old law firm. Before joining the administration, Wehrum spent a decade at a law firm, now called Hunton Andrews Kurth, which works on EPA issues.
For example, the EPA acted on a request from one Hunton-represented industry group, the NAAQS Implementation Coalition, that would allow domestic companies in states in the middle of the country to potentially pollute more — ostensibly due to less pollution coming across far-away international borders.
The coalition also asked the EPA to narrow the meaning of “ambient air” — a legal term in the Clean Air Act — in a way that would reduce which outdoor areas are protected. In the past, the EPA defined it as the air to which the public has access (and, therefore, can breathe in). Fenced-off areas near factories, for example, did not have to meet certain clean air standards.
A draft memo from Wehrum’s office last year called for expanding that exemption to include area deemed off-limits to the public because they are monitored by remote cameras or by drones or are too rugged to reach.
“Clarifying how EPA interprets the definition of ‘ambient air’ is a good first step in improving the agency’s outdated and cumbersome approach to evaluating the air quality impacts of projects to modernize U.S. manufacturing plants,” said Paul Noe, vice president of public policy at the American Forest and Paper Association, a trade association for paper and other wood product makers that is part of the NAAQS Implementation Coalition.
For Senate Democrats, here is the rub: The coalition demanding these changes included a number of organizations from which Wehrum has recused himself under his ethics pledge, including the American Forest and Paper Association, American Petroleum Institute and the Brick Industry Association.
“This is yet another example where the Trump administration has done just the opposite of ‘draining the swamp,’ by empowering polluting industries and installing those industries’ lobbyists and lawyers at the highest levels of our federal government,” Carper said in a statement.
And some environmentalists, keen on preserving air quality for outdoorsmen, were quick to criticize the draft memo when it came out last year.
“So industry may increase harmful air pollution & violate health standards over steep cliffs or rugged terrain, EPA says,” said John Walke, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Rock climbers, hikers, rugged-terrain-traversers, so sorry, you will be breathing unhealthy air.”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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— Moon landing: As part of an installation to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, a lunar bootprint was projected onto the Washington Monument at the same moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon.
So, this happened last night.— National Air and Space Museum (@airandspace) July 21, 2019
At the exact moment Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the Moon 50 years ago, we projected a lunar bootprint on the Washington Monument as part of our #GoForTheMoon show.
We love #Apollo50. pic.twitter.com/YoPfRNtFYl