Trump EPA nominee to fight worker safety rule in court

Trump EPA nominee to fight worker safety rule in court
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President Trump’s pick to lead air and radiation policy at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is slated to argue on behalf of industry groups in a federal court of appeals next week against an Obama-era rule protecting workers from being exposed to harmful silica dust.

As first reported by Politico, William Wehrum, a partner at Hunton & Williams, confirmed in a court filing Tuesday that he is arguing on behalf of the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association and the Brick Industry Association against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) silica dust rule.

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Before making his case to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 26, Wehrum was scheduled to take the hot seat before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at his nomination hearing on Wednesday

The committee, however, postponed that hearing on Tuesday

The industry groups argue the rule, which cut acceptable silica exposure from 100 cubic meters of air to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over the course of an eight-hour workday, is a solution in search of a problem.

“Silicosis mortality rates have declined more than 90 percent in this country (a decrease from 1065 deaths in 1968 to 101 in 2010),” the groups said in court documents.

“OSHA nevertheless asserts that this new standard is justified because of its evaluation of five disease endpoints (silicosis mortality, nonmalignant respiratory disease mortality, silicosis morbidity, silica related lung cancer, and renal disease).”

The Trump administration is defending the rule against eight lawsuits — two on behalf of unions and six on behalf of industry groups — that have been consolidated for 90-minute arguments next week.

The administration claims it’s undisputed that the silica causes serious, even fatal, health effects in exposed workers.

“Attempts by industry petitioners and interveners to portray silica-related diseases as problems of the past are belied by the large body of scientific evidence, including many peer-reviewed epidemiological studies, linking silica exposures at, and even below, the previous [permissible exposure limits] with increased rates of illness and death,” Kristen Lindberg, the Labor Department’s senior attorney, argued in briefs.

OSHA is scheduled to start enforcing the rule on Sept. 23.

Wehrum has been nominated to be an assistant administrator for air and radiation at the EPA, where he would be responsible for the bulk of Trump's efforts to roll back rules on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and ozone pollution. 

Wehrum did not respond to requests for comment. 

In an email, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said this is nothing improper about Wehrum arguing against the rule in court. 

"The case is a challenge to an OSHA workplace exposure limit for respirable silica," she said. "It has absolutely nothing to do with EPA or with any of Mr. Wehrum's duties or responsibilities with regard to his EPA nomination." 

—Updated at 6:11 p.m.