Senate Democrats attacked some of President Trump’s top nominees to serve at the Environmental Protection Agency during an emotional confirmation hearing Wednesday.
Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee focused their ire on two nominees who they accused of being too closely tied to private industry to be effective and faithful environmental enforcers: William Wehrum, who is bidding to become EPA’s top air official, and Michael Dourson, tabbed to run the agency’s chemical office.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the committee’s top Democrat, set the tone early when he said he decided to forego custom and refuse to introduce Wehrum, who is a Delaware native.
“He is a good person, but he is not a good choice for this job,” Carper said.
Since Trump nominated Wehrum last month, Democrats have relentlessly targeted the energy industry lawyer and former EPA official. He would oversee a portfolio dealing with climate change regulations. The post is widely considered the EPA’s second most important job, and Democrats say Wehrum’s industry ties would complicate his ability to re-evaluate carbon emissions regulations that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has tapped for review, such as the Clean Power Plan.
In his private law practice, Wehrum’s clients have included the American Petroleum Institute, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Concerns over his industry connections led to Wehrum being rejected by Congress to serve in the same position in the George W. Bush administration.
Wehrum suggested he would be faithful to Trump’s deregulatory agenda, which at the EPA is being carried out by Pruitt, who had close ties to the energy industry in his previous job as Oklahoma’s attorney general.
“President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have set a clear agenda that I intend to implement if confirmed to this position,” Wehrum said. “The president has issued executive orders that will eliminate needless and burdensome regulations, simplify and streamline compliance obligations, and strike a better balance between the twin goals of protecting human health and the environment and promoting the economic vitality of the nation.”
That perspective mirrors how Pruitt talks about his job, Democrats noted, complaining that phrases such as “balance” downplay scientists’ belief that humans are a major contributor to climate change by burning fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases. Democrats say the EPA has an obligation to strongly regulate climate change.
Wehrum acknowledged that humans are contributing to climate change. But in response to heated questioning from Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the EPA air nominee said “it’s an open question” if humans are the predominant cause of global warming.
Merkley then asked if Wehrum accepts science that shows oceans are becoming more acidic because of climate change.
Wehrum referred to such research as an “allegation,” before Merkley cut him off and expressed his displeasure.
“No one can look at what’s happening on the planet and see there is nothing happening unless you are deliberately determined to ignore that information,” Merkley said. “That makes you really, quite frankly, unacceptable to serve in this position.”
Dourson endured harsher attacks, some of them personal.
Demonstrators before the hearing distributed mock cigarette packages with Dourson’s named printed on them above a written disclaimer: “GENERAL WARNING: EPA Nominee Michael Dourson may be hazardous to your health.”
Dourson has faced scrutiny for his ties to the chemical industry, which he would be expected to regulate. The New York Times reported Dourson founded a consulting group that represented companies that produced chemicals now under EPA review for their public health risks.
Carper at the hearing presented a list of chemicals Dourson has recommended for lower safety standards than the norm proposed by regulators, often after he was hired by companies.
“It is regrettably difficult to look at your record and conclude you can be an impartial regulator,” Carper said.
Carper said Dourson could allay those concerns if he promised to recuse himself at the EPA from working on chemicals “the industry has paid you to study.”
Dourson did not make that promise.
“I will rely on the guidance of EPA ethics officials,” he said.
Carper was not satisfied.
“All of us are trying to do the right thing,” he told Dourson. “I just don’t see why you won’t say, ‘I will recuse myself.’ I don’t get it.”
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo, the committee’s chairman, defended the records of Wehrum and Dourson.
He called the EPA nominees “accomplished Americans and dedicated public servants,” and said Dourson’s office will protect the public.
Barrasso also put into the record a letter of 14 toxicologists praising the quality of Dourson’s work.
Democrats felt differently.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., started crying as she questioned Dourson, after introducing constituents in the audience “whose lives have been impacted” by hazardous chemicals.
“You have such a responsibility,” Gillibrand told Dourson. “You’re no longer being paid for your opinions. You are a public servant. Your job is to serve the people behind you. This nomination is the classic example of the fox guarding the henhouse.”
Dourson tried to assure critics.
“If confirmed, I commit to protecting the American public and its most vulnerable members using the best science,” he said. “I will bring the best science offered. I will be transparent. I will be collaborative. I commit to that.”
But Democrats were not buying it.
“The decisions you will make are really life or death decisions,” Carper said, addressing the nominees. “No question, you have witnessed an outpouring of emotion, almost fear, about what your service might lead to.”
Carper closed the hearing by directly questioning Dourson’s integrity.
“I try to treat people the way I like to be treated,” Carper said. “I surround myself with people who have a good mind and good heart. There is no question you have a good mind. What we are hearing about from senators on our side is questions about your heart. There are very serious questions about your heart.”
This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner