The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is preparing for a confirmation vote on Feb. 5 to move forward on elevating  Acting-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to agency administrator.  Wheeler has served as Acting Administrator since July 2018, when then-Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned. On Jan. 16, the EPW Committee held a confirmation hearing for Wheeler.

While Wheeler is expected to receive committee confirmation, several Senators showed concerns this week over EPA’s handling of toxic chemicals contaminating drinking water around the country.  In December, Wheeler signed off on a chemical management plan that would not regulate a pair of PFAS chemicals.  Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said that Wheeler had given her private assurances that the decision was not yet final—but she wants him to put it in writing. 

The EPA’s recommended exposure limit for the combination of two PFAS compounds, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is 70 parts per trillion in drinking water over one’s lifetime.  States, especially those on the East Coast, are setting their own limits for PFAS compounds in drinking water that are stricter than the EPA’s. The chemicals have caused concern because no consensus exists on how much is safe to consume, despite their widespread use.  (Bloomberg BNA, 1/23/19)

Capito, as of now, still plans to vote to advance Wheeler’s nomination.  However, she and a bipartisan group of 20 Senators sent Wheeler a letter on Feb. 1, urging him to commit to the development of an "enforceable" drinking water standard for both chemicals.   The letter asks Wheeler to commit to reversing course and commit to setting a federal limit for the chemicals in drinking water. (Politico, 2/1/19)

"Without enforceable drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, it is doubtful that a national management strategy will sufficiently confront the challenges PFAS chemicals pose to states and affected communities," the letter says.

Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee signaled this week they're holding firm on Wheeler's nomination ahead of next week's committee vote.  Ranking member Tom Carper, who signed onto the letter, said Thursday of the drinking water standards that he wanted to see Wheeler make "an iron-clad commitment to move heaven and earth to get it done by the end of next year."

If he receives enough votes on Feb. 5, Wheeler will still face a confirmation vote on the Senate floor before the full Senate.  Wheeler was narrowly confirmed for his current job as EPA’s Deputy Administrator last April, amid complaints from Democrats and environmentalists that his former job as a coal lobbyist could pose conflicts at the agency.  Wheeler has again vowed to steer clear of decisions affecting former clients.

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This Week in Washington is an online news portal from the Water Environment Federation that provides updates on the latest legislative and regulatory developments that affect the water and wastewater communities. It provides concise reports of related bills, regulations, legal decisions, congressional hearings, and other federal government actions, following key issues from introduction to final determination.

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This Week in Washington is compiled by the WEF Government Affairs department. Please contact us with any questions or comments.

Claudio Ternieden
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