The EPA won’t meet its statutory deadline for releasing final evaluations for 10 chemicals by June 22, agency chief Andrew Wheeler told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
“I believe we will get at least two of the 10 done and release the remainder by the end of summer,” Wheeler, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said on Wednesday.
Wheeler referred to a deadline in the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act amendments. The amended law required the agency—for the first time ever—to examine the potential for chemicals made and used in the U.S. to unduly injure people or the environment.
June 22 is the law’s deadline for completing the first 10 chemical risk evaluations.
“We are spending more time on the first 10. We want to make sure we get them right,” Wheeler said.
The EPA doesn’t appear to be getting it right, based on the agency’s draft evaluation of the risks of asbestos, said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
During the hearing, Merkley detailed concerns including the agency’s decision to review the risks of only one type of asbestos fiber, chrysotile, instead of examining the six commercial fibers recognized by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act. The senator also criticized the EPA’s decisions to omit air, waste, and drinking water exposures to its crique of the cancer-causing mineral.
“Meeting the deadline is one thing. But meeting the deadline and actually doing the work with integrity is another,” he said.
Wheeler said the EPA’s TSCA analyses don’t look at all possible exposures to asbestos or other chemicals.
When a chemical is already managed by air, water, or waste regulations, the agency’s chemicals risk analysis doesn’t examine exposures that may occur despite those rules, he said. The agency chose to avoid the possibility that its TSCA risk analyses could lead to duplicate regulation, Wheeler said.
But the agency will still examine some additional ways people may be exposed to asbestos due to a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling last year. The court said the agency omitted too many potential exposure scenarios from its risk evaluations.
The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization echoed and elaborated on Merkley’s concerns in a letter it submitted for the hearing to Committee Chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee’s top Democrat.
Wheeler Defends Virus Response
Also during the hearing, Wheeler vigorously rejected accusations from Democratic members that the EPA’s temporary relief from regulatory requirements to facilities affected by the coronavirus pandemic will let companies increase their pollution.
“No one, anywhere in this country, is allowed to increase their emissions under our enforcement discretion,” Wheeler said.
Since mid-March, the agency has opened 52 criminal enforcement cases, charged 10 defendants, concluded 122 civil enforcement actions, started 115 others, secured $21.5 million in Superfund response commitments, billed more than $20 million in Superfund oversight costs, and secured commitments for the cleanup of 68,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and water, Wheeler said.
The EPA’s new guidance acknowledges that some entities can’t perform—and thus are excused from—routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification activities. The guidance, which took effect retroactively to March 13, has no end date.
Attacks Over Air Rules
But in a heated exchange, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) demanded that Wheeler apologize to the American people for taking actions that he said will make air quality worse. The EPA has proposed or finalized eight rules and guidance documents that would increase air pollution since the pandemic struck, such as the March rollback of vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards, Markey said.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Markey said. “Your agency should be ashamed of itself. Your job is to protect the public health, and you are taking actions that will make this crisis worse.”
Markey’s line of questioning played off a report issued earlier in the day by Carper that linked coronavirus death rates to previous exposure to air pollution, and alleged that the EPA’s actions since the pandemic were harming public health.
In response, Wheeler flatly said the eight actions won’t make air quality worse. The EPA has said the auto standard rewrite will save lives and promote economic growth by cutting the price of new vehicles and helping more Americans buy newer, cleaner, and safer cars and trucks.
“The premise there is off,” Wheeler said.
Barrasso, the panel’s chair, also said the Carper report was based on disputed science.