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The Question Obama's EPA Pick Gina McCarthy Can't Answer

A GOP senator demands a years-old report she had nothing to do with
Gina McCarthy during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee nomination hearing in Washington on April 11
Gina McCarthy during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee nomination hearing in Washington on April 11Photograph by Christopher Gregory/The New York Times via Redux

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.