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EPA Inspector General Opens Ethics Investigation Into Former Air Quality Chief

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

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) former head of the Office of Air and Radiation who was instrumental in drafting policies that eased climate protection rules and pollution standards is under investigation by a federal watchdog for his dealings with the fossil fuel industry he was supposed to be regulating, according to the New York Times.


It is the third inquiry into whether Bill Wehrum, who worked for the EPA from November 2017 until his abrupt retirement at the end of last month, violated ethics rules when he met with former clients from his previous work as a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry and whether or not those clients improperly benefited from Wehrum's position.

Ethics rules prohibit public officials from taking part in matters involving people or organizations they previously represented in the private sector.

Specifically in question are Wehrum's ties to the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a lobbying group that champions coal-fired power plants, which Wehrum represented when he worked as a lawyer in a private practice, according to the New York Times.

"This is yet another example where the Trump administration has done just the opposite of 'draining the swamp,' by empowering polluting industries and installing those industries' lobbyists and lawyers at the highest levels of our federal government," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as the Washington Post reported.

The investigation was initiated by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Carper. They sent a letter to the EPA's Office of the Inspector General along with a lengthy report from their own investigation of Bill Wehrum, which led to his abrupt resignation last month.

The senators argued that Charles J. Sheehan, the inspector general, should investigate Wehrum even though he has left the agency.

"These are institutional concerns that are capable of repetition in the future, yet will evade your review should you abdicate your responsibility to conduct and complete an evidence-based investigation," the letter said, as the Hill reported. "Moreover, the ethical failings and absence of accountability that pervade the Trump Administration should not be aided by an implicit message that one can avoid investigation if one simply resigns before the investigation is complete."

In their letter, they urged the inspector general to also open an investigation into David Harlow — the EPA's senior counsel who worked with Wehrum at the law firm Hunton & Williams, now known as Hunton Andrews Kurth. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has looked into whether Wehrum and Harlow worked to improperly benefit DTE Energy, a former client, as the New York Times reported, although Wehrum is under additional investigation for benefiting a number of utility companies.

The letter also detailed new allegations against Wehrum and Harlow, including Wehrum's failure to disclose meetings with former clients on his recusal statements.

"At EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, it appears Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Harlow used those positions of public trust to dismantle decades-old protections for clean air and climate at the behest of Hunton-associated groups," Carper said in a statement.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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