New EPA Air Pollution Administrator Doesn't Mind More Mercury Emissions

All Images: Courtesy of U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
All Images: Courtesy of U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

There’s a new kid on the block or, well, Capitol Hill. The Senate confirmed William Wehrum to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation last week, on November 9. By most standards, this is the EPA’s second most important role. And, like the administrator role, it will be filled with someone who has a reputation for riding with industry giants.


Wehrum barely made it, though; the vote was 49-47 with Republican Sen. Susan Collins being her sole party member to reject Wehrum’s confirmation. But why? How could anyone resist this face?

Sure, Wehrum has a history of defending major energy companies, like the American Petroleum Institute and Utility Air Regulatory Group, in lawsuits against the EPA. But during his time serving under former President George W. Bush, as both general counsel to the Office of Air and Radiation and then acting assistant administrator, he built a relationship with the Clean Air Act. Mostly, the relationship involved trying to weaken it.

So, yeah. He’s got years of experience. The question is: Should a dude with that kind of experience be the one calling the shots for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation? First, you might want to know what the office does.

For one, it’s responsible for implementing the Clean Air Act. Wehrum has always seemed more interested in cheapening the act than strengthening it, Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defence Council would sue the agency pretty frequently during the Bush era—mostly for its Clean Air Act changes. And Wehrum had a lot to do with those changes, both as general counsel and as acting assistant administrator.

Now, he’s going to have the power to do that all over again with a president that wants to go further than Bush in deregulating environmental policy. Wehrum will be the guy spearheading the EPA’s attempt to repeal the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s landmark climate policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants to meet the Paris Agreement climate targets.


President Donald Trump doesn’t even acknowledge climate change is real, much less that it’s the result of man-made pollution. Wehrum, at least, has acknowledged climate change is real and that humans contribute, but he was clear during his confirmation hearings in October he wasn’t sure whether humans were the main cause.

“Having someone who still doesn’t have an understanding that our impacts are making climate [change] severe just speaks to who they are and what they represent,” Mustafa Ali, who worked at the EPA for 24 years and led its environmental justice office, told Earther. “Over the years, he’s worked in firms that have represented many of those big petrochemical companies that have been polluting our most vulnerable communities.”


Vulnerable communities—be they communities of color or low-income communities—are where the biggest environmental threats lie, as climate change creates a “deadly double” scenario, as Ali put it. These communities are battling pollution while also having to bear the brunt of severe climate change impacts through extreme weather. Examples of what the future will look like can be seen in Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

With Trump attempting to repeal the Clean Power Plan, Ali worries things will get worse. “By that dismantling, our most vulnerable communities are going to bear the brunt of the decisions he’s made,” he said.


Again, Wehrum is down to dismantle. In 2002, while serving as general counsel, he helped push through a rule to lower emission standards for formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen that can be found in some wood products. In 2004, Wehrum weakened the Clean Air Act’s mercury emissions standards, using language similar to industry memos. Mercury is bad news, man: Inhaling it in high amounts can lead to kidney and respiratory failure, as well as death.

Fast forward 10 years later, and he was still stuck on mercury while with the law firm Hunton & Williams LLP. He helped land a Clean Air Act case before the Supreme Court—and won. The highest court ruled that, per Law360, “the EPA had inappropriately failed to consider the cost of implementing new standards for mercury emissions from power plants before going ahead with a rule.”


“The reason this was such a big issue for us is because by EPA’s own analysis, if you look at the benefits generated by the hazardous air pollutant reductions this rule would achieve, the costs vastly outweigh the benefits,” Wehrum told Law360 last year. “So from our perspective, it’s a regulation that made no sense and wasn’t justified.”

The case remains on hold while the Trump administration decides whether to repeal the underlying regulation entirely. In short, mercury standards remain up in the air.


And now, Wehrum will once again be in charge of air regulation. Sigh.


Dense Non Aqueous Phase Liquid

The thing about air quality is that the atmosphere experiences almost perfect mixing compared to water when a contaminant enters from a discharge. If the geology and demography is just right then maybe the air above could be confined to a specific group of people. For instance, the LA Basin has it’s micro regions of valleys, where bad air settles and impacts folks of color. But usually if the air is bad over say Torrence it’s bad over Pasadena. On the other hand, if emissions are borne within a holler of West Virginia it will stay in that holler until the wind changes.

My neighborhood is in the Chicago bowl. It doesn’t seem like much of a dip in elevation compared to other areas of Chicagoland. My first line suburb is about 60 percent hispanic. Mostly Mexican. My Puerto Rican neighbor across the alley just moved, citing all the Mexicans moving into the neighborhood. (gotta love Chicago) The town to the east is about 90 percent hispanic. Black folks live to the east of them. The town to the west is wealthy and white. The town to the north of mine is a little black on the south and east sides, but the majority is white liberal. NPR “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” can be heard blasting from radios on Saturday.

The thing is we all breath the same air mass. An air mass fucked up by road traffic, rail yards, industry, and the world’s largest wastewater treatment plant belching products of degradation from the digesters and whatever emanates off the sludge drying pits.

Warham may try to divide and conquer to increase allowable discharge levels. This could be emissions from coal fired power plants (mercury, products of combustion), nuclear power plants (radionuclides), industry (chiefly boilers and VOCs from plant operations), and oil and gas facilities ranging from well field production to the tailpipes of cars and trucks. Air quality should be universal. When I did risk assessment for emissions the receptor (via inhalation) was given an exposure time and weight. Skin color was not used in calculating health risk. Warham et al will be going after any and every risk methodology he/they can to allow for higher discharge levels. He might not care, not because he’s a sociopath, but because he never studies how contaminants in the environment impact human health. So the old republican saw of more pollution means more GDP growth takes precedence. Not realizing that growth is tied to consumer numbers. So he’s an asshole.