Now is not the time for a vote to confirm the EPA administrator

During the shutdown, the backlog of projects piled up. Another shutdown might loom, and important issues await resolution.
Think of the wasted fuel at moments like these when traffic stands still on the Howard Frankland Bridge after yet another accident. [Times photo by Tailyr Irvine]
Think of the wasted fuel at moments like these when traffic stands still on the Howard Frankland Bridge after yet another accident. [Times photo by Tailyr Irvine]
Published January 31

The federal government shutdown is over. For now anyway.

Before the shutdown, the Environmental Protection Agency was already grappling with a set of challenging issues, many of them relevant to the air we breathe, the water we drink and the places we love in Florida. Now, after a 35-day hiatus, agency staff must shift to full catch-up mode. And, if President Donald Trump and Congress don’t reach an agreement on funding the government within the next few weeks, EPA staffers may experience yet another Groundhog Day-style repetition of the shutdown.

Is now really the best time for the U.S. Senate to spend precious staff time and resources to confirm Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s acting administrator? I don’t think so and that’s why Sen. Marco Rubio should call on Chairman John Barrasso of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as well as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to postpone the Andrew Wheeler confirmation process.

During the shutdown, when only 10 percent of EPA staff were working, the backlog of projects piled up. With the president saying the odds of a deal to avoid another shutdown are “less than 50-50,” that pile could grow higher. Meanwhile, important issues await resolution. Among them:

• CLEAN CAR STANDARDS: In August 2018, the Trump administration proposed to freeze fuel economy standards. A number of stakeholders here in Florida — the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association and the Evangelical Environment Network, to name just two — support the stronger standards. Florida depends on our clean and pristine beaches for our tourist industry. We don’t need an EPA administrator willing to let poor air quality and smog overtake our most important economic driver.

• THE KIGALI TREATY: The Kigali Treaty calls for a phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons, chemicals associated with ozone layer depletion. The agreement safeguards us from skin cancers and it presents an opportunity for U.S chemical companies to manufacture alternatives. Rubio joined a letter to the president stating, “The failure to ratify this amendment could transfer our American advantage to other countries. …We urge you to send this amendment to the Senate for its consideration.” Given the backlog of work at EPA, shouldn’t protecting the health of Floridians be more important than confirming the acting administrator?

• PER- AND POLYFLUOROALKYL SUBSTANCES (PFAS): In 2016, the Department of Defense assessed the risk of groundwater contamination for 38 sites in Florida. All are likely contaminated with dangerous chemicals known as PFAS. Following a cancer scare in Brevard County, Rubio joined colleagues in introducing a bipartisan bill to hold federal agencies accountable for addressing contamination of PFAS at military bases across the country. Isn’t protecting Floridians against toxic water contamination a more effective use of the EPA’s workforce than shepherding the acting administrator through the confirmation process?

The Senate should do the right thing and delay the Andrew Wheeler confirmation process. We need the EPA focused on doing its job and doing what’s right for Floridians, our beautiful state and the rest of our country.

Dr. Lynn Ringenberg is an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. A retired Army colonel, Dr. Ringenberg is also the founder of the Florida chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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