Still, his appointment “raises all kinds of red flags, and it makes his job more difficult in the sense that he will be watched every second,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who led the E.P.A. under President George W. Bush and who has criticized the agency under the Trump administration.
In recent months, the E.P.A. under its former chief, Scott Pruitt, has been beset by ethics investigations, and an earlier choice to run the Superfund program, a former banker with no experience in toxic cleanups, ultimately resigned. Mr. Pruitt himself stepped down this month, having launched major regulatory rollbacks at the E.P.A. while striking an industry-friendly stance that his successor is expected to continue.
Dow finally came to terms with the E.P.A. in 2010, during the Obama presidency, and a cleanup is underway that cost Dow $24 million last year. “Peter was notable for his professionalism, candor, cordiality and grace under pressure,” said Leverett Nelson, an E.P.A. regional counsel who worked with Mr. Wright on that agreement.
E.P.A. officials also stressed that Mr. Wright’s recusal wouldn’t restrict him in the job, since he would still be able to work on the vast majority of Superfund sites. They also credited Mr. Wright with helping to hammer out the eventual cleanup agreement in Michigan.
In a statement, a Dow spokeswoman, Rachelle Schikorra, described Mr. Wright as “a highly skilled and conscientious attorney who provided valuable guidance to Dow on environmental compliance matters for almost 20 years.” She said Mr. Wright retired last month and the company had no role in his nomination. Mr. Wright referred all questions to the E.P.A.
The Superfund program began in 1980 as an ambitious effort to fix thousands of toxic sites — factories, chemical dumps, abandoned mines — left scattered across the American landscape in the age of industrialization. It grapples with profound complexities: Companies disappear or change hands, and the science on toxicity and cleanup methods is often contested, making progress contentious and uncertain.
Mr. Wright, who was on a high-level team at Dow negotiating the Midland cleanup, has pointed to his work on the site as his biggest accomplishment. In a 2017 email to the E.P.A.’s chief of staff, made public last month as part of an environmental group’s lawsuit, Mr. Wright called it “the most controversial matter and the single most publicly successful matter that I have worked on at Dow.”