WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2016 – EPA chief Gina McCarthy put up a stout defense at a House Agriculture Committee hearing today to charges that her agency is out of touch with the farming community, stating that she works closely with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and has “great respect” for USDA.

As she has at other congressional hearings, McCarthy heard from lawmakers who accused EPA of “regulatory arrogance.”

Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, stressed that he would like to see EPA consult with USDA.

“Historically, USDA’s expertise and advice has been evident in the actions EPA has taken to evaluate pesticides and their uses,” Conaway said to start the hearing. “It concerns me to hear the farm community express increasingly urgent concerns about the lack of seriousness with which EPA takes and incorporates USDA expertise, advice and opinions, especially during formal interagency review.”

McCarthy and her detractors on the committee will have to agree to disagree, because she did not soften her views. She did, however, listen attentively, took notes throughout the hearing, and promised to get back to lawmakers with answers to a host of questions.

No, she said, EPA does not plan to withdraw its rule defining “waters of the U.S.” No, she does not believe EPA broke the law when it used social media to promote clean water while the proposed WOTUS rule was being considered. Yes, she works closely with Vilsack. And, yes, she said she has great respect for USDA and its scientific expertise.

“I think we have a close collaborative relationship” with USDA, she said. “At times we disagree, but it’s usually about what the law requires us to do.”

Committee members, however, said EPA needs to listen more to what USDA has to say, especially about pesticides and WOTUS. 

Questioned by Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, about Enlist Duo, a Dow herbicide whose registration was challenged in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, McCarthy said the agency’s actions should actually produce an answer more quickly than would a protracted court battle.

McCarthy said Dow AgroSciences had not provided EPA all the information on potential synergistic effects of 2,4-D and glyphosate, the two active ingredients in Enlist Duo. The agency asked the 9th Circuit to vacate the registration and send the matter back to EPA; the court declined to act on the registration, but it did grant the agency’s voluntary remand motion, meaning that Enlist Duo is still available.

“Dow did not give us the full range of data,” McCarthy said. However, at this point, “I’m pretty sure that we’ve already received a lot of the information on that. We don’t think there’s going to be a significant delay in reconsideration of this and moving it forward.”

Many of the committee members accused EPA of breaking the law, citing a Government Accountability Office report that found the agency used “covert propaganda” to support the proposed WOTUS rule.

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., was particularly tough on McCarthy, saying simply, “You broke the law. It needs to be admitted.”

McCarthy, however, said that while she respects GAO, she disagrees with its conclusion. In addition, she said GAO only cited two instances that ran afoul of the law, and that EPA is working with the Office of Management and Budget to ensure EPA is abiding by the letter of the law.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, wanted to know why EPA could not raise the targets for the Renewable Fuel Standard. Noting that the targets were lowered a few years ago when grain supplies were short and prices were high, King asked, “If it was a good idea to lower the RFS requirement for corn-based ethanol back when grain supplies were short and prices were high,” why not take the opposite course now? “I don’t notice that the same logic is applied when it comes time to adjust the RFS for current conditions,” King said.

McCarthy said EPA would like to get to those levels, but it’s difficult to do so quickly.

“I believe we’re doing everything that the law says, which is to get to these levels as quickly as possible,” she said.

Asked by King whether EPA has the authority to abolish the blend wall, McCarthy said, “These numbers actually push through the blend wall.”

The oil industry has advocated that gasoline contain than no more than 10 percent ethanol, sold as E10. Anything more than that would breach a “blend wall” and create fuel damaging to automobiles, the industry maintains.

Keep up with ag and rural policy and energy news as it happens. Sign up for a four-week free trial of Agri-Pulse.

McCarthy was also challenged on the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load program, which sets limits on pollutants that flow into the estuary and is now the subject of a challenge before the Supreme Court. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked whether EPA has completed a cost-benefit analysis on the TMDL; McCarthy said it has not, even though it has been in place since 2010.

“What we tried to do was allow states to choose their own path forward,” she said. That assertion was challenged by both Goodlatte and Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who cited documents from Delaware asserting that EPA can force its own plan on states, along with punitive action. “In what sense was there anything voluntary about this process?” he asked.

At the hearing’s end, Conaway told McCarthy, “I know you anticipated that this was not going to be the most fun you could have on a Thursday,” but McCarthy said, “I thought it was incredibly informative and respectful.”