Gina McCarthy has fielded 1,100 questions from Senate Republicans in Congress since President Obama picked her in March to head the Environmental Protection Agency—more than any EPA nominee before her. Among them: How many people in the U.S. last year got mercury poisoning from power plants fired by coal? (Seventeen hundred.) Will there be 21 billion gallons of ethanol made from renewable sources by 2030 as required under the law? (It’s too soon to say.)
Yet there’s one query the EPA’s head of air regulation has no way to respond to, and it could derail her nomination. GOP Senator David Vitter of Louisiana—who alone has made 400 inquiries—is insisting she turn over data linking air pollution to early death. The EPA has used that research, much to the consternation of energy companies, to justify regulations that curb pollution from diesel engines, coal-fired power plants, and industrial boilers. There’s one problem: The agency doesn’t possess the data. They were compiled by Harvard University two decades ago—long before McCarthy became an EPA official—and confidentiality agreements with thousands of participants prevent researchers from making the information public. Nor can the EPA access the Harvard analysis.
Although McCarthy won the support of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on May 16, no Republicans voted for her. Vitter says if McCarthy doesn’t produce the Harvard research and other information he wants, he will filibuster the nomination. “I hope we won’t have a fight on the floor,” he said at a recent hearing.
Environmentalists are miffed that Republicans have found a way to put McCarthy in a bind and stall operations at the agency. “They want to force EPA into paralysis by analysis,” complains John Walke, clean-air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They want to throw sand and dust and question the well-established link between soot and health.”
The energy industry has questioned the validity of Harvard’s research since the EPA first used it to set rules on soot in 1997. Luke Bolar, Vitter’s spokesman, says the senator wants the data now so he can provide them to outside researchers and let them do their own tests to see if the EPA’s claims of benefits from its regulations are true. “Without the data there currently exists no way for anyone to verify what EPA is claiming,” writes Bolar in an e-mail.
Vitter is also using his filibuster threat to force McCarthy to pledge that she’ll make specific changes to how the agency is run. The senator wants the EPA to improve the way it deals with Freedom of Information requests and to crack down on employees’ use of personal e-mail accounts for government business. The agency’s previous administrator used a private account under a different name to exchange messages with employees, and Republicans say the practice was meant to hide information from Congress and the public. Vitter also insists that the agency adopt an economic model that industry groups endorse for evaluating the costs and benefits of pollution rules.
Even if McCarthy acquiesces to the demands, there’d be the problem of tracking down the elusive Harvard pollution data. Vitter’s request might make sense politically, but the science is settled, says C. Arden Pope, a Brigham Young University professor who co-wrote the decades-old Harvard study. “When it is all said and done, the results we published have hardly changed” after years of reanalysis and follow-ups, Pope says. “That’s been frustrating to those who want to make it go away.”