Wheeler: EPA can clean air, water while reducing costs to businesses

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — The nation's top environmental official chief on Tuesday boasted how deregulation has helped make the country's water and air cleaner while unveiling the latest federal plan for Great Lakes cleanup efforts, including sites in Michigan.

In the speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler also touted a Trump administration proposal to require communities to notify residents in 24 hours — down from the current 30 days — if elevated levels of lead are found in their drinking water. He said it is a direct result of the Flint water crisis.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler does a Q&A at the end of his remarks at the Detroit Economic Club at the MotorCity Hotel in Detroit on Oct. 22, 2019.

"The water sector has known for years that the federal regulations protecting our drinking water from lead and copper needs to be updated and approved," Wheeler said at the Motor City Casino. "Prior administrations failed to get it done but we're on top of it. The country knows a lot more now than we did in the '90s about the impact of lead in the drinking water, especially on children."

Experts have said no level of lead in water is safe for humans, particularly children and pregnant women. The current federal safety advisory level for lead is 15 parts per billion.

The 24-hour rule is doable even if laboratories usually take weeks or even months to analyze results, Wheeler said.

"There can be a lag time but it's important that if it is above the limit that we get another source of drinking water to those families, particularly families with small children," Wheeler said after his speech to reporters. "So I thin 24-hours is doable in today's technology and lab results are a lot faster than they used to be."

Before the speech, the EPA released its third five-year plan for cleanup efforts under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. President Donald Trump's administration has tried to nearly eliminate the $300 million in annual funding three times until Trump relented and backed full funding in late March after three Michigan Republican U.S. House members lobbied him prior to a Grand Rapids campaign rally.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, criticized Wheeler's appearance and the administration's original efforts to the restoration initiative 90% to $30 million annually — something Congress rejected each time.

“Sadly, Administrator Wheeler is trying to mask the Trump Administration’s terrible environmental record. It takes a lot of nerve to fly into Michigan and celebrate Great Lakes programs that the Trump Administration previously tried to eliminate,” Kildee said in a statement.

"... And just recently, Trump’s EPA announced a weak revision of the Lead and Copper Rule, which would allow lead pipes to remain in our drinking water systems, even after dangerous levels of lead have been found."

The Great Lakes are "a national treasure," Wheeler told the Economic Club audience, and that the plan unveiled earlier Tuesday would clean up toxic pollutants, keep Asian carp out of the lakes and protect a variety of habits.

The EPA is hoping to complete local cleanup efforts of environmental contamination in Clinton River, Muskegon Lake and the Upper Peninsula’s Manistique River by 2021, two years after the agency originally aimed to be finished, according to the EPA initiative plan. The "management actions" need to be finished before the "Areas of Concerns" are considered safe and taken off the Superfund list.

The EPA is also targeting by 2024 to complete remediation efforts in 10 new Areas of Concern for environmental contamination, including Michigan’s Torch Lake and the Rouge River.

In his speech, Wheeler boasted that America "has the cleanest air on record and we are ranked No. 1 in the world for access to clean drinking water."

But he blamed the media because "they don't tell this side of the story. If you had similar reductions in opioid addiction or gang violence, for example, it would lead the nightly news. We've made tremendous environmental progress as a nation and the public needs to know that."

After his speech, Wheeler met privately with Detroit Water Sewerage Department leaders including CEO Gary Brown.

Under the Trump administration, Wheeler said the EPA has finalized 46 deregulatory actions saving the country $3.7 billion in costs. During the first two years, 26 unnecessary rules were cut and while four rules were created, he said.

"I'm often asked how you can deregulate and protect the environment at the same time? This question assumes that regulation is the only path to environmental protection," he said. "Yet we know that innovation and technology have led to remarkable environmental progress. And often deregulation is necessary to spur on that innovation."

Wheeler promoted Trump's efforts to create one set of national fuel economy standards by trying to revoke part of California's right to set its own gas mileage rules for cars and trucks. Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has joined other Democratic attorneys general in suing to try to stop the Trump effort, setting up a likely protracted legal fight that could ensnare automakers for years.

Wheeler said that when Trump gave him the EPA post, he asked him to clean up the air, "continue to clean up the water and continue to deregulate and help create more jobs and keep the economy growing."

"The president knows that we can do all three at the same time and I know that we can, too," he said.


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