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Bush backs shunned nominees

His three choices for jobs dealing with the environment were previously blocked as pro-industry.

April 01, 2007|Judy Pasternak | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House has renominated three people for top jobs affecting the environment who were previously blocked in Congress because of their pro-industry views.

According to industry lobbyists and Republican aides in Congress, Bush intends to skirt the Senate approval process if necessary by making recess appointments to put the three nominees in the posts.

All three have ties to industries that face costly Environmental Protection Agency restrictions, and all three have previously bypassed or questioned the EPA's scientific process.

They are William Wehrum, who would head the air office of the EPA; Alex A. Beehler, chosen to be the EPA's inspector general; and Susan Dudley, who would become White House regulations chief.

The White House considers them "highly qualified and well-versed in their areas," said spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. She said she would "not speculate" on Bush's plans for any recess appointments.

Although Democrats, who have placed environmental protection high on their agenda, now control Congress, the White House plans for the key regulatory jobs demonstrate that it still has tools at its command.

The president can bypass the Senate by making recess appointments while the Senate is on break, as Bush did when he named John R. Bolton as United Nations ambassador.

Wehrum and Beehler were proposed for the same posts last year, but Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) blocked the nominations.

Boxer now heads the Environment and Public Works Committee, where the names have been sent again. "I view it as an enormous threat to public health that the president refuses to back off," she said. The committee plans hearings on both men this month.

Dudley's nomination stalled in the last congressional session because the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee didn't vote on it. Liberal groups had objected to her.

Wehrum, a former lawyer for the chemical, utility and auto industries, was counsel to the EPA's air office when controversy erupted over the agency's new standard for power-plant mercury emissions. The mercury rule contained paragraphs lifted verbatim from a memo by Latham & Watkins, Wehrum's former law firm, which represented utility companies affected by the rule.

The agency's inspector general denounced the effort, saying it relied on industry input over science.

Wehrum has acknowledged it was he who forwarded the language to EPA subordinates writing the rule.

"The concern was that there was collusion," Wehrum said in an interview. "I categorically deny that."

In late 2005, Wehrum became acting air administrator, a promotion that expires July 7. Bush's appointment would keep him in the job.

Wehrum's decisions continue to generate controversy among the EPA's independent science advisory panels and career staff.

Responding to a request from battery manufacturers, Wehrum's office proposed in December to discontinue maximum limits for lead in the air, noting that levels nationally had plunged since the phase-out of leaded gasoline.

An advisory committee of 22 outside scientists is attacking that plan.

Recent scientific evidence has shown that even lower levels can be harmful, particularly to children. The current standard is "totally inadequate" and should be "lowered substantially," said the panel's chairwoman, respiratory biochemist Rogene Henderson.

Panel members also complained that the EPA's air office did not explore other options and had not fully analyzed the health risks.

After Henderson raised those concerns with Wehrum, he agreed to order additional research and allow the scientists to review it before deciding on lead levels.

But critics are wary: The EPA air office, under Wehrum and his predecessor, has promised to revisit rules on mercury and formaldehyde if new evidence emerges -- yet despite subsequent studies showing that the agency understated the risks of both substances, it has not revisited the rules.

To replace the retired inspector general who criticized the EPA's work on the mercury rule, the administration has recommended Beehler, a Pentagon official and former executive for Koch Industries, a private oil and chemical conglomerate based in Wichita, Kan.

The inspector general independently oversees EPA management, conducting audits and investigations. The EPA said last month that it would eliminate 30 staffers from the inspector general's office.

Hired as the Pentagon's No. 2 environment manager in 2004, Beehler was involved in an ongoing effort to influence EPA consideration of a health standard for perchlorate, a rocket fuel component, according to Defense Department documents.

Perchlorate, which can damage thyroid function and impair fetal brain development, is contaminating water in at least 25 states, including California, according to the EPA.

EPA scientists had concluded that a drinking water standard of 1 part per billion would be necessary to protect fetuses. The Air Force, concerned about costly cleanups at military bases, said that was too low.

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