EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler remains quick to defend the Trump EPA’s legacy, especially in comparison with its predecessor, and ready to tout agency efforts over the last four years.
In an interview with E&E News yesterday, Wheeler said that the Obama administration stalled on its response to the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis and that the Trump EPA moved more quickly. He also touted EPA’s updating its Lead and Copper Rule to replace lead service lines, which had been left sitting for nearly 30 years, and its faster response to lead contamination found in Newark, N.J.
And, when asked, he offered some advice for the incoming administration.
"I found out about Newark on a Friday. By Saturday afternoon, we sent a letter to the city demanding that they provide bottled water. We had our scientists on the ground, our technicians on the ground for weeks after that, testing and retesting," Wheeler said.
"I just think that the difference of how we approached a major health issue in this country is it just shows that, in my opinion, the Obama administration was solely focused on climate change to the exclusion of almost everything else."
Green groups have been among Wheeler’s fiercest critics, charging that he and the Trump administration have weakened environmental protections. The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit today to strike down the updated Lead and Copper Rule that Wheeler praised, saying it will leave millions of people exposed to dangerous levels of lead for decades (see related story).
The EPA head, however, is proud of his tenure. Asked what this administration’s mark on the agency will be, Wheeler said, "I think the legacy shows that you can have commonsense, cost-effective regulations that still reduces pollution and improves the environment for everyone."
The administrator touted reductions in air pollution, cleaning up Superfund sites, better water quality, and collection of civil and criminal enforcement penalties.
"Just across the board, all the metrics have improved, but we’ve done it in a cost-effective manner that’s not costing U.S. jobs," Wheeler said.
The Trump EPA, however, may be most remembered for the deregulatory tear it went on over the past four years, quickening ever more in its waning hours.
Environmental rules on air, climate and water have been reworked or pulled back. How the agency crafts regulations — from which scientific studies are favored to how it calculates their costs and benefits — has been changed, as well.
Much, if not all, of that work could be undone by the incoming Biden administration in the coming years.
Asked what advice he had for the new team coming to EPA, Wheeler said they need to be aware of all aspects of the agency, pointing to programs for Superfund, recycling, chemicals and pesticides.
"When you get here, it’s just you’re inundated with so many different issues. One of the things that doesn’t get much press unless there’s a hurricane, we have two to three emergency responses every week, somewhere across the country," Wheeler said.
"I would say that you need to continue to pay attention to everything at the agency. The Obama people only focused on climate change. They did [the ‘Waters of the U.S.’ rule], but that was about it."
Wheeler has known the agency inside and out for decades professionally. In 1991, he began his career at EPA as a GS-9 employee, then went to Capitol Hill and later became a lobbyist.
Wheeler was confirmed as EPA’s deputy administrator in April 2018. After Scott Pruitt resigned amid a series of ethics scandals in July that year, Wheeler took charge of the agency on an acting basis and was later confirmed as administrator in February 2019.
EPA’s 15th administrator said he doesn’t have future plans yet but is trying to help his staff land elsewhere.
"I honestly don’t have anything else planned right now. I really don’t. I’ve got some junior political staff here that I’m trying to help find positions," Wheeler said. "I’m trying to work on counseling, mentoring, providing references, things like that. I’m focused on my job and helping my staff."
The Trump administration’s tumult has continued to its end. The Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by the president’s supporters has led to resignations across the government, with some political appointees leaving EPA in protest.
Wheeler said he is staying until Jan. 20, having taken an oath of office to be EPA administrator and ensure there’s a smooth transition. Still, he said he was repulsed by the mob violence last week.
"You know me, I worked in the Senate for 14 years. I was there in the ’90s when the two Capitol Police officers were killed. I was there for 9/11, for anthrax, for ricin. What I saw last week was worse than any of that. It just really disgusted me," Wheeler said.
When President Trump was first impeached for holding up foreign aid to Ukraine for political interference in the 2020 election, Wheeler said he was sure the president would be "vindicated" (Greenwire, Oct. 3, 2019).
Trump then wasn’t convicted by the Senate and remained in office. But earlier this week, the president was impeached a historic second time for inciting his supporters in their attack on the Capitol.
Asked whether Trump would be vindicated this time, Wheeler said he wasn’t sure.
"I honestly don’t know," Wheeler said.
Marine waste, career staff
Wheeler said among his biggest regrets at EPA was the work left unfinished, especially on marine waste. The task required international travel — it was a topic during his recent trip to Costa Rica — but the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined those trips in 2020.
"As I told the people in Costa Rica, it doesn’t matter who is running the administration, our country, our government believes in reducing marine waste," Wheeler said. "It is something that is not political, but it needs a lot of work and a lot of leadership. I was quite honestly providing that leadership, but it got cut short because of COVID."
EPA under the Trump administration has seen hundreds of employees leave, many of them frustrated at the agency’s change of direction.
Wheeler noted, however, that when he started, 40% of EPA staff was eligible to retire over a five-year period, and he credited retirements for the attrition. He said he has pushed for recruiting and brought on a new human resources director to help replenish gaps in the EPA workforce.
"We did this past year, 2020, bring on more people than left," Wheeler said.
Relations between EPA’s career employees and Trump’s political appointees have been rough at times, with disagreements over policy and management often spilling into public view. Yet when asked whether he trusted career staff, Wheeler said, "Absolutely."
"Every single decision I’ve made, I’ve been briefed by career staff, all the major regulations, and I’ve taken their advice. I don’t always agree," Wheeler said, adding, "At the end of the day, the statutes call for the administrator to make the final call, and I’ve done that."
Wheeler said, "Just across the board, I’ve had excellent, outstanding advice from my career staff, and I will be eternally grateful to the staff at EPA."