Duckworth: Trump appointees nix EtO investigations

Senator says ‘political appointees are working to undermine’ EPA on Sterigenics

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth grilled EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler Wednesday in Senate confirmation hearings. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth grilled EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler Wednesday in Senate confirmation hearings. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

In confirmation hearings for the proposed new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth charged Wednesday that “political appointees” are working to “undermine” the EPA’s mission — especially on emissions of carcinogenic ethylene oxide.

EtO emissions have been a hot-button issue in Illinois since the Sterigenics facilities in suburban Willowbrook were blamed for a cancer cluster in the area in a government report released last summer.

In questioning Andrew Wheeler, President Trump’s appointee to head the EPA, in Senate hearings Wednesday, Duckworth first cited how agency offices in Illinois are charged with protecting water quality, Superfund cleanups, and Great Lakes restoration. But she immediately added that “EPA Regional Administrator Cathy Stepp and other political appointees are working to undermine that important work.”

Stepp is the owner of a Wisconsin construction firm who went on to win election as a Republican to the state Senate. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker appointed her to head the Department of Natural Resources in 2011, but she largely established a reputation for rolling back environmental regulations and business oversights. Along the way, she has also cast doubt on the scientific validity of climate change.

A Trump supporter in 2016, she was appointed an EPA deputy administrator by the president in 2017. Stepp ran afoul of Duckworth and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin last September after she canceled three meetings with the Illinois senators on Sterigenics.

Moving on to the “elevated cancer risk” in Willowbrook, Duckworth charged that she’d heard that EPA appointees had instructed staff “not” to inspect any EtO facilities, and that EPA data showed no EtO facilities had been inspected nationwide “in at least the last six months.”

Duckworth called that disclosure “very disappointing.”

“This is news to me,” Wheeler said. “We are monitoring a number of facilities that release ethylene oxide.” But he did not specify that number of how many, and of course monitoring emissions is not the same as inspecting the facilities.

Duckworth cast doubt on whether the EPA could be trusted on the issue and asked if Wheeler would issue a “document retention order” to protect existing data.

“If there’s an issue there, certainly we’d want those documents retained,” Wheeler said.

Duckworth asked if Wheeler would support a probe by the EPA’s inspector general into whether the agency’s operations were being politically undermined, but Wheeler did not formally commit to that.

Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the coal industry who, like Stepp, was appointed an EPA deputy administrator in the Trump administration. He was elevated to acting EPA head last July to replace embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who had also established a reputation for undermining the agency’s mission and environmental regulations. Trump formally nominated Wheeler to full the post in November.

Duckworth additionally charged that the Trump administration’s latest Lead Action Plan had “walked back earlier goals on eliminating lead exposure,” so that it now calls for firms to “reduce” rather than “eliminate” child lead exposure.

“It’s certainly our goal to eliminate lead exposure,” Wheeler insisted.

But when Duckworth demanded why Dr. Ruth Etzel, director of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection and an appointee of President Obama, had been “abruptly put on leave,” Wheeler charged — while saying he couldn’t go into specifics — that EPA employees had made accusations against her and an investigation was ongoing.

Duckworth also accused the Trump administration of working to undermine the Renewable Fuel Standard and the move to ethanol, while granting “hardship waivers” to Big Oil refining companies like Exxon and Chevron.

Duckworth met with Wheeler Tuesday, ahead of his confirmation hearing, and raised the same issues.

EtO emissions have also been suspected of causing an elevated cancer risk in Lake County near Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee.

The firms continue to operate, although the Illinois attorney general has filed suit to close Sterigenics at the request of the Illinois EPA, an action taken after former Attorney General Lisa Madigan charged the state and federal agencies with a cover-up, when it was found former Gov. Bruce Rauner had owned a stake in Sterigenics.

Duckworth posted video from her five-minute questioning session in Wheeler’s confirmation hearings on YouTube.