After the longest government shutdown in history, I have been trying to impress on my school-age daughter that some things are too important to shut down or ignore. In a participatory democracy like ours, our responsibility never shuts down. So, last month, we traveled to Washington to one of the few places where salaries were still being paid in the federal government: the U.S. Senate.
We traveled to our capital to meet with the lawmakers who represent us West Virginians the day before the Senate nomination hearing for Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to permanently lead the agency formerly headed by the disgraced Scott Pruitt. We joined dozens of other families from across the country who share our conviction that we parents must speak up for our children’s health.
We sat in the Senate hearing room and listened as senators on the committee responsible for vetting Wheeler, including our own Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., spoke with Wheeler. We were sorely disappointed, particularly by Sen. Capito. We expected tough questions and candid answers about how Wheeler’s actions, past and present, will affect the health of West Virginians and our access to clean water. What we heard were off-topic statements from Capito and a free-for-all approach to what should be objective, scientific facts.
Wheeler concerns my family because of his track record at the EPA. As far as we can tell, his top priority is neither to protect our environment nor our health. Case-in-point: Wheeler’s EPA recently attacked the foundation of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, adopted in 2012. As a mother, a West Virginian and a neuroscientist, this concerns me. In both my pregnancies, I knew to avoid fish high in mercury because of the risk to my baby’s brain, particularly long-term problems with attention and loss of IQ. Virtually all fish in West Virginia waters are contaminated, per 2012 statewide advisories.
The 2012 standards are working. Mercury pollution in West Virginia has decreased by 75 percent. The filters installed also protect against arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases. According to the EPA’s own calculations, the pollution reduction translates to almost $800 million in annual statewide health benefits for West Virginia. Industry compliance costs have been already absorbed and lower than originally estimated. Electrical utilities — which, for years, opposed the standards — have forthrightly urged Wheeler’s EPA to keep its hands off our national mercury standards.
Wheeler’s attack on the mercury standards appears to be a ploy to change how costs and benefits are calculated so that the costs are inflated and the health benefits are narrowly defined to underestimate the real-world benefits seen to our families.
There is no price that a mom would put on the value of a child’s full potential, yet the EPA must, by its nature, make calculations. Mercury exposure is estimated to cost our nation’s economy an average of $8.7 billion each year, when calculated in terms of the loss of economic productivity of exposed children across their lifetime. Is Wheeler considering our children’s potential in his calculations? It doesn’t seem like it.
Wheeler’s nomination to head the EPA will go to the full Senate soon for a vote. Before this happens, on behalf of my daughter and all West Virginians, I am urging our state’s senators to press Wheeler to provide real answers about his attack on our mercury standards.
It is the privilege of every senator to ask hard questions of powerful job-seekers in our government. To squander that opportunity is irresponsible. As I explained to my daughter, this is why we came to Washington: to make sure our senators remember their responsibility to the children and families of our state.