By Sarah Rankin
January 14, 2022 - More than 150 former Environmental Protection Agency employees urged the Virginia Senate on Friday to oppose the nomination of former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler to GOP Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin's Cabinet.
Youngkin announced last week that he had selected Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led the EPA during the latter years of the Trump administration, to serve as Virginia's secretary of natural resources, a similar state-level role. The announcement sparked an immediate backlash from the state's conservation community, and many Democratic state senators have publicly announced their opposition.
Ex-EPA officials who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations detailed their concerns to the Democrat-led chamber in the sharply worded letter, which was first shared with The Associated Press.
“As EPA Administrator, Mr. Wheeler pursued an extremist approach, methodically weakening EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment, instead favoring polluters. Mr. Wheeler also sidelined science at the agency, ignored both agency and outside experts, rolled back rules to cut greenhouse gases and protect the climate, and took steps to hamstring EPA and slow efforts to set the agency back on course after he left office," they wrote.
In a statement to the AP, a Youngkin spokeswoman reaffirmed the governor-elect's position that Wheeler is the right person for the job.
"Andrew will do the critical work of protecting the Chesapeake Bay, supporting the Virginia Coastal Restoration Authority, stopping the unnecessary dumping of raw sewage into the James River and to the Potomac, and standing up for our environment. Virginians want more from their elected officials than partisan bickering," spokeswoman Macaulay Porter wrote.
The 158 signatories on the letter include two deputy EPA administrators and two former administrators of EPA's mid-Atlantic region, of which Virginia is a part. One of the former regional administrators was appointed during Republican President Ronald Reagan's administration. Three former directors of the EPA's Science Advisory Board signed on, as did assistant administrators, attorneys, scientists and other rank-and-file staff.
Wheeler worked at the EPA's Pollution Prevention and Toxics office early in his career. He then worked from 1995 to 2009 as a staffer for Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a fervent denier of man-made climate change, and for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, before becoming a lobbyist.
His client list included Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies.
He took over the EPA job after President Donald Trump accepted the resignation of embattled administrator Scott Pruitt, who had been dogged by scandals that spawned federal and congressional investigations.
The EPA under Trump generally moved to delegate a range of public health and environmental enforcement to states and roll back protections put into place under President Barack Obama.
While Wheeler was in the top job, the Trump administration ordered a sweeping about-face on Obama-era efforts to fight climate change, moving to ease restrictions on coal-fired power plants. EPA also moved to revoke California’s authority to set auto mileage standards and dropped an Obama-era regulation opposed by developers and farmers that shielded many U.S. wetlands and streams from pollution.
“Through our deregulatory actions, the Trump administration has proven that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress,” Wheeler told lawmakers in 2019.
The EPA under President Joe Biden has moved to undo many of the Trump-era rollbacks.
The former EPA employees warned that Wheeler would “significantly undermine the progress that Virginia’s legislature has recently made to advance clean energy and address climate change.”
They also noted that Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA administrator and Republican governor of New Jersey writing in a Washington Post opinion piece, warned Congress in 2019 not to confirm Wheeler to the EPA post.
In Virginia, Cabinet secretaries are subject to confirmation by the state House, now controlled by the GOP, and Senate. The process is usually fairly perfunctory, with the approval of the governor's choices seen as a courtesy absent major controversies. If Senate Democrats remain unified, their 21-19 majority could end Wheeler’s nomination, even without support from their Republican colleagues.
Christopher Zarba, a former director of EPA’s Science Advisory Board staff office, was among those urging senators to vote against Wheeler. He told the AP that he was used to accommodating the approaches of political appointees during his 38 years at EPA as a scientist and manager, but he said “atrocities on science” were committed under Pruitt and Wheeler.
"There was broad recognition that the previous administration, and Andrew Wheeler being part of that, there was broad catering to special interests at the cost of quality science and public health," Zarba said.
Penelope Fenner-Crisp, a former deputy director in the Office of Pesticide Programs and a longtime Virginia resident, was the driving force behind the letter. She said more than 150 people signed on within two days after she used a mailing list of EPA alumni to circulate it, focusing on people who live in Virginia or the Chesapeake Bay watershed.