Top EPA official stepping down amid ethics probe

Top EPA official stepping down amid ethics probe
© Greg Nash

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) air policy chief is leaving amid ethics concerns.

The agency on Wednesday announced that Bill Wehrum, the head of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, will leave the agency by the end of June. 

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The announcement comes a few months after lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee launched an investigation into whether Wehrum and his deputy improperly aided former energy industry clients after joining the EPA.

Wehrum, along with the office’s senior counsel, David Harlow, formerly worked at the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, where he represented Utility Air Regulatory Group. The umbrella group represents a number of power plant operators that EPA regulates.

The lawmakers wrote an April later to Wehrum’s former employer saying they were “deeply troubled by several reports of unethical behavior by EPA officials, particularly in the Office of Air and Radiation.”

“We are concerned that two former employees of your firm — William Wehrum and David Harlow — may have violated federal ethics rules by helping reverse EPA’s position in ongoing litigation,” Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills This week: House impeachment inquiry hits crucial stretch MORE (D-N.J.) wrote in a letter to Hunton that was also signed by Reps. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoAs we face coronavirus battle, we must ensure critical supplies of respirators for health care workers Overnight Energy: Murkowski, Manchin unveil major energy bill | Lawmakers grill EPA chief over push to slash agency's budget | GOP lawmaker accuses Trump officials of 'playing politics' over Yucca Mountain Lawmakers grill EPA chief over push to slash agency's budget MORE (D-N.Y.) and Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteHillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Trump names Pence to lead coronavirus response Hillicon Valley: Democrats cancel surveillance vote over pushback to amendments | Lawmakers grill Ticketmaster, StubHub execs over online ticketing MORE (D-Colo.).

The agency under President TrumpDonald John TrumpHealth insurers Cigna, Humana waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19 Fauci says April 30 extension is 'a wise and prudent decision' MORE has rolled back a number of regulations that had long been targets of the coal industry and coal-reliant utilities.

Wehrum specifically was an integral player in relaxing a number of Obama-era pollution rules, including most recently Tuesday’s finalized repeal of the "once in, always in" regulation for sources of air pollution at “major” industrial power plants.

Wehrum has led the EPA’s efforts to repeal and replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, rolling out a final rule earlier this month to ease restrictions on coal fired power plants, called the American Clean Energy (ACE) rule. That rule is likely to face a court battle.

The head of EPA’s air pollution department has also played a role in shaping the new federal vehicle emissions standards, which critics argue will allow more pollution from tailpipe emissions.

In a statement Wednesday, EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws amid coronavirus | Trump oil purchase in jeopardy | Analysis finds gasoline demand could fall 50 percent EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws amid coronavirus EPA watchdog to review pollution plans after threat to withhold California highway funding MORE suggested that Wehrum had been anticipating leaving the EPA after the finalization of the rules.

“I would like to thank Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum for his service, his dedication to his job, the leadership he provided to his staff and the agency, and for his friendship," Wheeler wrote. "While I have known of Bill’s desire to leave at the end of this month for quite sometime, the date has still come too soon. I applaud Bill and his team for finalizing the Affordable Clean Energy regulation last week and for the tremendous progress he has made in so many other regulatory initiatives."

Wheeler said Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Anne Idsal will takeover Wehrum's role.

Environmental groups cheered Wehrum’s departure Wednesday, saying he did more harm than good at the EPA.

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

Wehrum is one of a number of EPA employees who have faced criticism over ties to previous clients. Wheeler has also come under fire for appearing to favor regulatory decisions that would benefit his former energy lobbyist clients.

Noah Bookbinder, executive director for watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called Wehrum’s departure just the tip of the iceberg for employees who need to leave due to ethical concerns.

“William Wehrum was emblematic of the administration’s struggles to remain ethical," Bookbinder said in a statement. “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 PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: House stimulus aims to stem airline pollution | Environmental measures become sticking point in Senate talks | Progressives propose T 'green stimulus' Court sides with scientists on EPA policy barring grantees from serving on agency boards Overnight Energy: Senate energy bill stalled amid amendment fight | Coronavirus, oil prices drive market meltdown | Green groups say Dem climate plan doesn't go far enough MORE, the Trump administration needs to get serious about policing its ethical failures.”

Updated at 11:30 a.m.