Apr. 26, 2006 – A chorus of environmental and health advocacy groups is urging Congress to reject the Bush administrationâ€™s most recent nominee to an environmental post, based on his corporate agenda, industry ties and anti-environment record.
Last week, thirteen organizations sent letters to senators, contesting William Wehrumâ€™s pending confirmation as head the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will vote on Wehrum today. If confirmed, Wehrum will lead programs that address industrial and vehicle pollution, indoor and outdoor air quality, ozone depletion, radiation protection, global climate change and acid rain.
Pointing to Wehrumâ€™s five-year record at the EPA, the groups say he has helped undermine air pollution regulations, jeopardized public health and advocated for the interests of polluter industries. Wehrum was counsel to his predecessor at the EPA, Jeffrey Holmstead, before becoming the acting assistant administrator of OAR in September 2005.
"Virtually anything bad that the Bush Administration has done with air pollution has Bill Wehrumâ€™s fingerprints on it," said Frank Oâ€™Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting clean-air laws.
According to a biographical sketch by the US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Wehrum provided policy and legal advice on air issues, including the Clean Air Mercury Rule, which rolled back prior efforts by the EPA to control mercury air pollution from coal-burning power plants. He was also involved in the New Source Review changes, gutting a provision of the Clean Air Act that forced expanding power plants to incorporate the highest pollution controls. Those changes were recently stuck down by a US appeals court.
Pointing to Wehrumâ€™s five-year record at the EPA, the groups say he has helped undermine air-pollution regulations, jeopardized public health and advocated for the interests of polluter industries.
Critics generally accuse Wehrum of prioritizing politics over sound science.
"It seems that Mr. Wehrum has not had a healthy respect for the scientific process," said Michael Halpern, outreach coordinator for the Scientific Integrity Program for the
Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit alliance of scientists and laypersons. "We believe that itâ€™s appropriate to nominate someone with a track record of making decisions that truly protect public health based on the best available science."
Last year, under Wehrumâ€™s watch, the OAR quietly composed a proposal that would further erode the Clean Air Act by dramatically weakening the rules requiring toxic air polluters to implement the best control technology available to the industry.
Adding to criticsâ€™ misgivings is Wehrumâ€™s former employment as a lawyer for the firm Latham & Watkins, which has represented the chemical, power, oil and forest-products industries.
"Bill Wehrum changed teams, but he never switched jerseys," said John Stanton, vice president of National Environmental Trust, an organization that informs citizens about environmental problems. "He has steadfastly represented the client in the EPA that he used to represent when he was in private law practice."
Under Wehrumâ€™s watch, the government quietly composed a proposal that would further erode the Clean Air Act by dramatically weakening the regulations on toxic polluters.
"The big concern is that he may personify the so-called â€˜revolving door syndrome,â€™ where he worked for a polluting industry and has come into the government and in many respects seems to still be advocating for his former clients," Oâ€™Donnell of Clean Air Watch told The NewStandard.
Wehrum is not alone in his tendency to favor private interests at the EPA. Holmstead, the previous assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation, had also worked at the legal firm Latham & Watkins.
In 2004, while Holmstead and Wehrum ran the Office of Air and Radiation together, their old firm effectively ghost-wrote parts of the EPAâ€™s mercury rule as did WEST Associates, an industry group that represents utility companies. Several paragraphs were taken verbatim from memos that WEST and Latham & Watkins sent to the EPA.
Another example is Thomas Sansonetti, who from 2001 to 2005 was the assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice, in charge of lawsuits to force industry to comply with pollution regulations. His next move was to rejoin the law firm Holland & Hart, which represents utility companies. And John Pemberton, Holmsteadâ€™s chief of staff at OAR, was hired by electricity giant Southern Company only one week after the EPA designed the New Source Review loopholes.
In fact, critics of the Bush administration say Wehrumâ€™s nomination is just the latest indication that it is positioning political appointees to carry out the agenda of its major donors. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks the influence of money on politics, electric-utility companies gave Bush $1.4 million for his presidential campaigns.
Critics say that in the background, the Bush administration is directing each political appointee.
Although Wehrum and others are individual actors, critics say that in the background, the Bush administration is directing each political appointee.
"Letâ€™s make this clear: Bill Wehrumâ€™s not making the decisions," said Bruce Buckheit, who headed air enforcement at EPAâ€™s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance for eight years. "The White House is making the decisions and setting environmental policy, and Bill Wehrum is executing the policy." Buckheit resigned in December 2003, after, according to him, EPA officials forced him to stop investigating coal-fired utilities for noncompliance.
Buckheit is not alone. In March 2004, several EPA staffers interviewed by the LA Times said Wehrum and other EPA officials told them to halt investigations into the effects of mercury regulation on the environment, public health and the economy.
"At agencies like the EPA, there are many career employees who went to work at these agencies with the idea of doing the right thing," Oâ€™Donnell told TNS. "The Bush administration has put in political employees whose job it is to be friendlier to industry and to make sure that those career people donâ€™t have the ability to effect change that they might have otherwise."
A memo and accompanying documents, obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and reviewed by TNS, show that Wehrum, at the suggestion of American Petroleum Institute, is working to reduce the role of career EPA officials in setting clean-air standards. The memo calls for elimination of the Staff Paper, which allows staff members to collectively voice periodic input on agency regulations.
Halpern of Concerned Scientists said that not only are political appointees limiting the role of other staff members in agencies; they are also manipulating science and data to fit predetermined conclusions. Two surveys conducted in 2005 by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that scientists from two government agencies â€“ the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service â€“ had experienced political interference in their work.
"The level of control extends further down than it ever did before," Halpern said. "Scientists are saying they received phone calls from high-ranking political appointees asking them to change dates and manipulate information. Itâ€™s having a chilling effect on the sciences coming out of these agencies."
While the Bush administrationâ€™s behind-the-scenes actions have left citizens with little direct recourse, environmental and health advocacy organizations are hoping that targeting an individual like Wehrum will send a message.
Although it is unclear how Wehrum will be received by the Senate as a whole, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut) have issued press releases voicing their concern about his appointment, while Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) has threatened to filibuster his nomination if it reaches the Senate floor.
"In a democracy that only holds elections every two-to-four years, thereâ€™s not a lot of direct political accountability, so weâ€™ve devised other means," John Walke, clean air director at the NRDC, told TNS. "Now is actually a rare opportunity when an individual who is responsible for so much harmful action is up in his individual capacity to be endorsed or rejected. Thatâ€™s a rare and welcomed opportunity. And senators will be judged on whether they hold this individual accountable, too."