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EPA Still Working on Rules Not Tied to Virus, Wheeler Says (1)

April 2, 2020, 8:00 PMUpdated: April 2, 2020, 8:50 PM

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency is still trying to push out rules that aren’t tied to the new coronavirus pandemic—whenever the White House is ready to review them.

In an interview Thursday, Wheeler said the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t paused work on any of its priority regulations. These include dealing with its reworking of the mercury rule to eliminate the legal basis for restricting mercury air pollution from coal-fired power plants; and listing of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as hazardous substances under the Superfund law.

The EPA is pushing ahead despite a nationwide social distancing order and the White House’s focus on reviewing policies and rules to address Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Wheeler said.

“Our rulemaking’s continuing,” he said. “Our people are working. They’re working at home. They’re working at remote locations. They want to work. The American people want to know that we’re on the job. We have a lot to do.”

Wheeler said the EPA isn’t delaying sending any rules to the Office of Management and Budget, which must review them prior to publication.

But the OMB said it is prioritizing actions that deal directly with the coronavirus—unless the agency comes across a rule that has a specific deadline attached to it, Wheeler said.

The Trump administration has directed all rulemaking activities to continue, despite growing calls from lawmakers, state attorneys general, and regulated entities to postpone consideration of any rule that doesn’t address the pandemic.

“Work on behalf of the American people must continue during this period,” White House regulatory chief Paul Ray wrote in a March 23 memo to agency leaders.

Extending Comment Periods

Wheeler also said the agency is looking at extending comment periods for specific rules, as environmental groups have urged, but his hands were tied with rules that had court-mandated deadlines.

The EPA later on Thursday did just that, extending by a month the public comment period for its science transparency rule, to May 18.

Wheeler has sought to prioritize the EPA’s work in addressing contamination of soil, groundwater, and drinking water by a class of synthetic chemicals known as PFAS that are often used in nonstick and waterproof consumer goods.

The agency had set a November target to designate two key PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. But the proposal hasn’t yet been submitted for review to OMB.

Wheeler said the EPA staff had been holding what he called “predecisional meetings” to resolve some questions before the formal submission to OMB.

“We are prepared to send it forward, while working through these issues,” he said.

Mercury Waits, Fuel Efficiency Goes

One rule that is currently waiting for OMB review is the EPA’s rewrite of the cost-benefit analysis underlying 2012 limits on power plants’ emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants.

Neither the mercury rule, nor the PFAS rule, have court-mandated deadlines, Wheeler said.

Wheeler had told news reporters March 4 that the mercury rule “should be out any day now,” but that was days before President Donald Trump declared a nationwide emergency.

In contrast, Wheeler said OMB staff worked through the weekend to clear the joint EPA and the Transportation Department rule easing fuel efficiency requirements.

Wheeler said that rule made it through OMB because the Clean Air Act requires that automakers be given 18 months to comply with any regulation.

(Updates with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergenvironment.com; Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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