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US Senate panel grills EPA, NRC nominees

Lawmakers scrutinized several Trump administration nominees for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission during an Oct. 4 hearing in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee considered nominations for several EPA assistant administrator jobs, including for the office overseeing air quality regulations for power plants. The panel also weighed NRC Commissioner Jeffery Baran’s reappointment to a new term at the agency.

As with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Democrats voiced deep concern over some of the EPA nominees' industry ties and questioned whether the candidates would recuse themselves from matters in which they previously represented or did work for industry clients.

One of those nominees was William Wehrum, whom President Donald Trump tapped as assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. From 2005 to 2007, Wehrum held that job in an acting capacity but was never confirmed to officially hold the role after Congress struck down his nomination.

Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper, D-Del., said he opposed Wehrum's prior nomination because he "deferred too frequently to industry" and "suppressed scientific information."

"Sadly, I fear too little has changed since he last appeared before this committee," Carper said. He also noted that Wehrum had represented industry clients against the EPA more than 30 times since 2009, including in litigation against the Obama administration's air toxics standards for power plants.

GOP lawmakers on the committee welcomed Wehrum's promise to "strike a better balance" between protecting the environment and the economy. Wehrum also pledged to work with states on regulatory matters to keep with Pruitt's credo of "cooperative federalism," which he called one of the "cornerstones of the Clean Air Act."

"President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have set a clear agenda that I intend to implement if confirmed to this position," Wehrum said.

If confirmed, Wehrum would arrive at the EPA as the agency prepares to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a rule aimed at cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants. The rule is one of several Trump wants to overturn to ease the power sector’s regulatory burdens, a goal Wehrum said he supports.

When asked whether humans are the main driver of climate change, Wehrum told the Senate panel he believes that is an "open question," signaling a less-than-aggressive stance on regulating greenhouse gases.

Wehrum was not the only nominee to face a tough audience at the Senate hearing. Baran, a Democratic commissioner at the NRC, is up for another five-year term after his current one expires at the end of June 2018.

Senate environment committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., criticized Baran for his recent lone dissent in an NRC decision to spend money on licensing process activities for the stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The Trump administration and Republican lawmakers have proposed funding to restart the project, which the Obama administration put on hold over environmental and safety concerns.

Barrasso also blasted Baran for siding with nuclear energy opponents' call for the NRC to be able to suspend or vacate a nuclear license if new evidence is presented at evidentiary hearings that questions the project's environmental or safety impacts.

"I find the position that the nominee today has taken is deeply troubling and outside the mainstream," Barrasso said. "It is tailor-made to those looking to delay NRC's licensing process indefinitely and to stop nuclear energy projects from going forward."

Carper has backed Baran's nomination and said he was "heartened" that the Trump administration selected him for a new term.

In addition to Wehrum and Baran, the committee reviewed the nominations of Michael Dourson as assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Matthew Leopold as assistant administrator for EPA's Office of General Counsel and David Ross as assistant administrator for the Office of Water. A committee spokesman did not immediately respond to a request on when the committee will vote on the nominations.