WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2017 - Nominees for EPA offices with significant influence over American agriculture played things close to the vest today when questioned about the Renewable Fuel Standard and chemical regulation at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Hunton & Williams partner William Wehrum, nominated as assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said that if confirmed, his “goal would be to implement the RFS as faithfully and completely” as he can, when questioned closely on it by senators Joni Ernst, R-Iowa (pictured above), and Deb Fischer, R-Neb. They and other farm-state lawmakers and ethanol backers are concerned about recent actions by EPA that could lead to reductions in the amount of ethanol and biodiesel produced under the law.

Wehrum also said he shared EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s “commitment to the rule of law.” But he added that while he knows “a bit about the RFS, I don’t know everything about the RFS,” and that if he is confirmed, “part of what I need to do is fully understand the program.” He told both senators he was willing to sit down with them to discuss their concerns.

“The RFS is a very complex program and there are extensive provisions within the law that govern how it should be implemented and even more extensive regulations that EPA has adopted,” he said.

“There is discretion built into the law for the agency and others to use” to ensure that its provisions are “effective as a practical matter,” he said.

Ernst and Fischer said they’re concerned by recent actions from EPA, particularly its Notice of Data Availability, which asked for comment on potential options for reductions in the 2018 biomass-based diesel, advanced biofuel, and total renewable fuel volumes.

Both of them also said they’re worried about reports that EPA is considering allowing ethanol exports to qualify for compliance credits, “an act,” said Fischer, “that would completely undermine the integrity of the program, not to mention, I believe, harm the reputation of the United States as a fair trading partner.”

Wehrum responded, “The RFS is a very complicated program, and I am not apprised of all of the recent actions and all of the recent activity.” Then he committed to working with Fischer and her staff.

Wehrum got his share of questions at the hearing, but the focal point for Democrats was toxicologist Michael Dourson, a professor in the Risk Science Center at the University of Cincinnati. It is Dourson’s work for industry, however, that has generated opposition from environmental, public health and farmworker groups, among others.

The chemical industry supports his nomination. The American Chemistry Council and CropLife America, for example, have both backed Dourson. CLA President Jay Vroom said in July that Dourson's “extensive experience in risk assessment and science, both in the government and private sector, make him a valuable addition to the office.”

Committee Democrats said Dourson, while heading up the nonprofit Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, had conducted work for industry that resulted in recommendations of chemical safety levels well above those recommended by federal and state regulators.

“Never, in the history of EPA, has a nominee to lead the chemical safety office had such deep ties to industry,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking member of the committee. “Never has a nominee had such a long record of recommending chemical safety standards that are as much as thousands of times less protective than those recommended by regulators. Never has a nominee so consistently underestimated the risks of chemical exposures to the most vulnerable among us.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., accused Dourson of producing “bogus science” and said, “If there was a Nobel Prize in chemistry in reverse, you’d be the clear winner.”

Dourson, like Wehrum a former EPA employee, generally did not try to debate his critics -- including Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York – in the limited time allotted for questions and answers.

“If confirmed as the Assistant Administrator for (Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention), I will dedicate my mind, body and spirit to the work of this office, to working with its dedicated staff, to the protection of the American public, including its most vulnerable, and its environment from overexposure to pesticides and chemicals,” he said in his opening statement.

Asked if he would recuse himself from working on chemicals on which he had previously done work for industry, Dourson said he would follow the advice of EPA ethics officials.

“There are comprehensive ethics rules that will govern my transition from private to public service,” he told EPW Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “I will strictly follow the regulations that apply to this transition.”

As assistant administrator for OCSPP, Dourson would oversee the Office of Pesticide Programs, a frequent target of criticism by environmental groups who claim it is too aligned with industry. Industry groups have been critical of the office in the past for what it believes is an overly cautious approach to pesticide regulation.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., asked Dourson whether the implementation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act has moved too far toward “precautionary” regulation, and Dourson agreed.

“There have been tendencies in certain cases to be additionally precautionary, more protective than needed,” he said. “And you’re correct, senator, in those particular situations, you might have an erosion of this balancing act within FIFRA.”

He pledged to “work with the talented staff of the Office of Pesticide Programs and bring impartiality to it or maintain that balance if it’s already there,” so the “American people can be assured that FIFRA is regulated the way it’s intended to be regulated, as a balance between risk and benefit.”

Asked repeatedly by Merkley whether he was aware of studies showing that chlorpyrifos (sold by Dow AgroSciences under the trade name Lorsban) can cause brain damage in children, Dourson at first said it would be inappropriate for him to prejudge the risks of the chemical, but acknowledged that there is at least one epidemiological study that showed “an association.”  

EPA rejected a petition by environmental and farmworker safety groups earlier this year to ban chlorpyrifos, saying it would examine the chemical under the FIFRA registration schedule, meaning that it can be used until 2022. Dow has consistently said it is "confident that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety."


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