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EPA Air Quality Chief Resigns Over Ethics Investigation

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On Oct. 4, 2017, the Senate EPW Committee held a hearing on Wehrum's nomination. EPA / YouTube screenshot

So little time, so much damage done. That's the legacy left by Bill Wehrum who spent only one and a half years as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) top air quality official before announcing that he will step down this weekend under the cloud of a federal ethics investigation over possible conflicts of interest. His resignation follows conflicting statement he made to Congress about his industry connections, according to Politico.


Mr. Wehrum worked as a lobbyist and lawyer for the oil, gas and coal industries before joining the Trump administration, but did not relinquish ties to his clients. The House Energy and Commerce Committee opened an inquiry into whether he improperly worked to reverse an enforcement action in order to help DTE Energy, a former client. Watchdog groups also said he crossed a line when he gave presentations to former clients and when he worked on policy that affected litigation in which his former firm, Hunton & Williams, was involved, as The New York Times reported.

"William Wehrum was emblematic of the administration's struggles to remain ethical," said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in a statement reported by The Washington Post. "While it's a good thing that Wehrum's potential ethics problems will no longer affect the agency, the tone is set at the top, and if the EPA is to clean up the mess started by Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration needs to get serious about policing its ethical failures."

In his short tenure in the EPA, which started in November 2017, Wehrum has proven himself a nimble deregulator. He was instrumental to shrinking the EPA's reach, rolling back Obama-era rules meant to lower greenhouse gas emissions, slowing fuel-efficiency requirements for cars and trucks, and rewriting the way the EPA calculates costs and benefits to favor the fossil fuel energy sector — essentially rewriting the way the agency measures the health consequences of air pollution, as The Washington Post reported. He was also the chief architect of the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which eased the path for more coal-fired power plants to open, according to The New York Times.

"Mr. Wehrum oversaw the most relentless rollback of clean air, climate and health safeguards in E.P.A.'s history," said John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, as The New York Times reported. "E.P.A. strengthened not a single meaningful air quality or climate safeguard during his tenure."

Environmental activists are pleased to see him leave.

"Wehrum did more damage to the Clean Air Act than any other person in the last 40 years," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, as Politico reported. "His legacy will be more premature deaths, more hospital visits and more asthma attacks to our most vulnerable citizens."

Wehrum's ethical mishaps follow a pattern of behavior from senior Trump administration officials who have resigned while under investigation, including four Cabinet members — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin — along with other senior staffers such as Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William "Brock" Long.

Also, the Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General is currently investigating Secretary David Bernhardt and six current or former top appointees for actions similar to Wehrum's — improper dealings with their former employers or clients on department-related business, as The Washington Post reported.

As for Wehrum's life after the EPA, one Senate Democrat who asked for an investigation into Wehrum predicted a profitable future with the fossil fuel industry.

"I can't wait to see where Bill Wehrum lands once he's out the door," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in a statement, as reported by The Washington Post. "What do you bet it's with one of the fossil fuel interests he has served so well as air chief, delivering one big handout after another?"

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