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EPA chief defends rule rollbacks while at children’s health event

EPA chief defends rule rollbacks while at children’s health event
© Anna Moneymaker

Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler on Monday emphatically defended his agency’s environmental policy rollbacks as he argued that the EPA is significantly contributing to children’s health.

At the event in a courtyard at the EPA’s Washington headquarters celebrating Child Health Day, Wheeler faced numerous questions from reporters about how the Trump administration’s efforts to ease major regulations will impact children, a population considered especially vulnerable to pollution.

Wheeler repeatedly maintained that the EPA isn’t touching “health-based” standards, and criticized the accounting methods that forecast widespread health impacts from the changes he is carrying out.

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“We set the health-based standards based on what is necessary to protect health, including children,” he told reporters.

He said the proposals to roll back greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and power plants pertain to energy efficiency.

“Neither one of those is health-based standards per se,” he said. “We have our separate health-based standards. We have not changed those. They’re still in effect. They’ll still be in effect next year, tomorrow.”

Wheeler said that the EPA’s own figures showing health impacts for the rollbacks — such as that the proposed replacement for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan would cause 1,400 additional deaths — are based on “co-benefits,” or the benefits obtained from reducing pollutants that are not directly regulated, like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

“We believe the math the Obama administration used is a little suspect,” he said.

The Trump administration also argues that the Clean Power Plan was illegal and that rolling back auto emissions rules would save lives — including children's — by making newer, safer cars more affordable.

In recent months, the EPA has moved to repeal or weaken numerous Obama administration standards.

In addition to the auto and power plant emissions rules, the agency laid out a plan to roll back methane emissions rules for oil and natural gas drillers. On Friday, officials moved to replace the Obama administration’s justification for mercury pollution rules for power plants.

In addition, the EPA last week put Dr. Ruth Etzel, director of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, on leave, in an action she and environmental groups say is meant to weaken the office or eventually close it.

But Wheeler also defended that decision on Monday, saying Etzel’s suspension was to allow the EPA to “investigate some allegations,” not because of any plans to change the office.

“There was some misinformation saying we’re doing away with the office or we’re closing the office. Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s a very important office,” he said, nothing that it helped organize the Monday event.

“The important work of that office is continuing, and I appreciate the dedication of the employees in that office who have been performing oustandingly,” Wheeler said.

Michael Firestone, a scientist in the children’s office, is its acting director during Etzel’s suspension, the agency said. He attended the Monday event and stood behind Wheeler, but the EPA declined to make him available for comment.