WASHINGTON (CN) – A former Dow Chemical attorney tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical hazard oversight body told lawmakers Wednesday he has no opinion on administrator Scott Pruitt’s suspension of hazardous chemical regulations.
Peter Wright, nominated to oversee the Office of Land and Emergency Management at EPA, appeared before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works alongside another nominee, William McIntosh.
McIntosh, a former director at the Ford Motor Company, is the Trump administration’s pick for assistant administrator at EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs.
Though senators occasionally peppered McIntosh with questions about his commitment to assist Native American tribes with their environmental concerns, Wright was the focus of most of the scrutiny.
If confirmed, Wright will be the assistant EPA administrator charged with overseeing Superfund programs and other risk management programs.
In an awkward exchange with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Wright admitted he was “unfamiliar” with the chemical disaster rule Pruitt has targeted for rescission.
Pruitt officially delayed the rule in April 2017 and it is still under review.
According to Gretchen Goldman, researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, had the rule been in place when Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, causing a significant environmental disaster, it would have forced “better coordination between companies and emergency responders.”
The rule also would have required companies to conduct more thorough post-incident reviews of storm-related mishaps like the of the peroxide tank explosions that occurred at the Arkema Inc., chemical facility in Crosby, Texas.
“For Arkema, a company with several past mishaps and accidental releases at its Crosby facility, such provisions might have made a difference post-Harvey,” Goldman said in a statement Wednesday.
Sen. Booker pressed Wright about the chemical disaster rule in light of the Arkema explosions.
Wright’s inability to comment on the rule’s specifics prompted Booker to shift gears and ask Wright if he supported “any rule” that would weaken chemical safety standards.
When Wright repeated he was “not deeply familiar with the current rule or with the program,” Booker asked the attorney if he could tap his “common sense” instead.
“How about this: shouldn’t facilities be able to use safer technologies to avoid accidents? Wouldn’t you want that?” Booker asked.
“Chemical safety is paramount,” Wright said, adding ifconfirmed, he would get “up to speed” on the chemical disaster rule.
“How about in general: do you believe facilities that have a chemical disaster or a ‘near-miss’ should be required to investigate what went wrong so they can avoid similar impacts in the future?” Booker said.
“It may be common sense but I can’t appreciate how it’s formulated in the proposed rule,” he said.
Wright’s nomination was also decried by more than a 100 public interest groups.
In a letter delivered to the Senate Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and other organizations said media reports indicating Wright was directly involved in negotiations involving 14 Superfund sites while at Dow should have precluded him from the nomination.
“Alarmingly, during his time at Dow, Mr. Wright has questioned well-established, peer-reviewed scientific data and the U.S. EPA’s expert evaluation finding that exposure to dioxins poses a serious threat to human health,” the union said in its letter to the Senate.
Wright told senators he would recuse himself from overseeing any superfund site Dow or DowDuPont contaminated for at least two years.
He will “permanently recuse” himself from those sites he’s directly worked on, he said.
McIntosh too was eventually pulled into the fray by Sen. Tom Carper, D-De. Carper asked both nominees if they believed climate change was caused by human activity.
Both men said they were uncertain, with McIntosh adding he was “somewhat unfamiliar” with the scientific evidence proving humans are the causal factor behind warming.
Pruitt’s mountain of ethical scandals and inquiries was also never far from lawmakers’ minds Wednesday.
Carper and others repeatedly asked Wright and McIntosh if they would grant Pruitt any personal favors, should he ask.
While McIntosh said plainly he would not and would comply with federal rules, Wright’s answer was similar but far less direct.
“If you were asked by the administrator for special favors for the administrator’s friends or supporters, even if you think its not the right thing to do, would you do it anyway?”
Wright told the senator he had “no expectation” he would be asked for such a favor.
“But would you do it, if you were?” Carper pressed.
Wright repeated himself.
“I’m very disappointed in that answer,” Carper said.