July 11, 2018, by Jennifer A. Dlouhy
Andrew Wheeler promised to defend EPA workers, heed their advice and join them in a shared mission of protecting the environment during his first address to employees since taking over the agency from embattled former chief Scott Pruitt.
“I know firsthand how passionate and dedicated you are, and it is a privilege to work alongside you,” Acting Administrator Wheeler told scores of staffers gathered in an auditorium at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Washington headquarters and thousands more around the country watching a video feed. Wheeler said he would work with them to fulfill the agency’s “vital mission of protecting human health and the environment.”
Wheeler’s words seemed designed to soothe EPA employees rattled by Pruitt’s scandal-marred tenure. The former EPA administrator, who resigned under pressure July 5, moved to limit scientific studies used by the agency, rescind Obama-era regulations governing pollution and reduce the influence of academic scientists on advisory boards. He also presided over cuts in EPA staffing, urged on by conservatives eager to see the agency put on a short leash.
And for months, Pruitt was the subject of a deluge of allegations of ethical misconduct, questionable spending and abuses of power that drew more than a dozen federal investigations.
Unlike Pruitt, who was faulted for not consulting with EPA’s career employees, Wheeler has sought them out. On Wednesday, Wheeler invoked his history as an EPA career employee, working on toxic chemicals under former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Although Wheeler’s speech was directed at the career employees assembled before him, some of his messages may have been intended for a different audience: the oil companies, chemical manufacturers and homebuilders regulated by the EPA.
He promised businesses more certainty when it comes to securing essential permits and navigating potential EPA enforcement actions. Wheeler said he wants the EPA to make all permit decisions — up or down — within six months.
And he said the agency should do a better job communicating risks to the public: “EPA owes it to the American public to be able to explain in very simple and easy-to-understand terms what are the risks they face in their daily lives.”
Wheeler steered clear of detailing specific policy goals or elaborating on how he would fulfill the agency’s core mission of protecting human health and the environment.
His ascension as acting administrator may slow the pace of some regulatory changes initiated under Pruitt — though it’s unlikely to radically change their course. Wheeler shares Trump and Pruitt’s environmental agenda, including proposals to roll back regulations on climate change and pollution.
That work continues unabated. On Tuesday, the White House began a formal interagency review of the EPA’s draft proposal for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from individual power plants that is a less-stringent rewrite of former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Wheeler acknowledged his recent career lobbying for coal producer Murray Energy Corp., the utility Xcel Energy Inc., uranium miner Energy Fuels Inc. and other clients, stressing he was “not at all ashamed of the work.” Wheeler has promised to stay away from decisions affecting former clients.
Grinning EPA employees streamed out of the event, with some praising Wheeler’s transparency and others his humor. “He won us over when he mentioned ‘Lord of the Rings,’” quipped one staffer.
Marquea King, an EPA toxicologist, said she was “optimistic” and encouraged that Wheeler said he was willing to listen.
“He may or may not agree with everything, and that’s OK,” she said. “I at least appreciate the opportunity to be heard. I think that’s what most people want, and I don’t think that’s always been the case.”
In one respect, Wheeler’s speech recalled Pruitt’s first address to EPA staff members, more than a year ago. It was conducted from the very same spot: the Rachel Carson Green Room, named for a noted marine biologist whose work highlighting the dangers of pesticide use helped drive a global environmental movement.