Wheeler backs Trump’s hold on diversity training

By Hannah Northey | 09/30/2020 01:33 PM EDT

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler today defended postponing the agency’s upcoming race-related training sessions and touted the Trump administration’s work on “elevating” environmental justice.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Francis Chung/E&E News

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler today defended postponing the agency’s upcoming race-related training sessions and touted the Trump administration’s work on "elevating" environmental justice.

EPA last week halted a class on diversity after the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a memo on Sept. 4 directing all agencies to root out education on the structural and systematic qualities of racism in the United States (Greenwire, Sept. 16).

"I think that’s very appropriate, I think that’s a misuse of America’s taxpayer dollars to promote training that marginalizes groups of people and is very controversial," Wheeler said on a call with reporters today. "I don’t think we should be using taxpayer dollars for that."


Wheeler said the training was suspended so EPA could ensure the materials are appropriate and such reviews will continue on an ongoing basis.

The administration’s move has drawn criticism as the nation faces widespread social justice protests following the killings of Black Americans. Among the critics, some have said that quashing sensitivity training could deter business with the federal government and retention of people of color in the nation’s agencies and laboratories (Greenwire, Sept. 23).

President Trump at last night’s first presidential debate said he moved to end racial sensitivity training that addresses white privilege and critical race theory at federal agencies, calling the classes "racist."

"I ended it because a lot of people were complaining that they were asked to do things that were absolutely insane, that it was a radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools all over the place," Trump said, claiming that the training taught people to "hate our country."

The White House memo, Wheeler contended, will not affect the overall work of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which he said was "elevated" under the Trump administration when it was moved from the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to the Office of Policy within the Office of the Administrator three years ago (Greenwire, Sept. 7, 2017).

"In the enforcement office, that meant we were only looking at environmental justice at the end of the process, when we’re enforcing the laws or regulations," said Wheeler. "By putting it in the administrator’s office, we were able to focus on environmental justice across the entire program at EPA and everything that we do, including the development of policies and the development of regulations."

The agency for decades has faced criticism for failing to deeply address environmental justice in its day-to-day work. That criticism has ramped up during the Trump administration (see related story). Environmental justice advocates have chastised moving the office, saying it diminishes its role. And they have pointed to repeated budget proposals from the White House that would either reduce or zero out the office’s budget (Greenwire, Sept. 18).

EPA staff, Wheeler said, is working to strengthen and streamline its grant-making program to ensure applicants aren’t overwhelmed with hundreds of pages of documents from each office within the agency. They’re also working to break down silos that exist among the various offices within the agency, a situation that’s thrown up roadblocks to helping vulnerable communities.

"It’s a fundamental flaw with how the agency was originally created and also has been exacerbated by our statutes over the years," he said.

When asked for an example of that work, Wheeler recalled how the mayor of Benton Harbor, Mich., in 1997 testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that officials in EPA’s Brownfields Program suggested she apply for grants to attract revitalization and jobs at sites in the city. At the same time, EPA’s air office told the mayor she was in nonattainment, couldn’t increase emissions and that no permits for new facilities would be granted.

"She literally threw up her hands and told the committee, ‘What am I supposed to do, EPA on one hand is telling me to redevelop … and EPA is telling me, "You can’t do that because of air quality,"’" said Wheeler. "So it’s bringing together the different offices at the EPA."

Wheeler said the Trump administration’s plan on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances reflects the first time the agency used all of its statutes and program offices to come up with an action plan to address an emerging chemical contaminant, calling it the "poster child for what the agency can do."

IG report

Despite Wheeler’s comments, EPA’s internal watchdog this week called on the agency to toughen oversight of those receiving its funding to help stop discrimination (E&E News PM, Sept. 28).

An EPA Office of Inspector General report said the agency’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office has "not fully implemented" an oversight system to find whether its funding recipients are complying with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars those who receive federal funding from discriminating based on race, color or national origin when carrying out programs for the government.

The IG argued EPA should conduct "more robust, systemic oversight" to prevent discrimination.

Wheeler said he had been traveling since Monday and was only briefed on the report at a high level but noted the report goes back a number of years and faulted the IG for not accounting for improvements made in the last three years.

The IG, he said, came to some "erroneous conclusions," pointing out that the internal watchdog found the best way to judge the value of a civil rights program is by noncompliance.

"I think that’s a faulty conclusion," he said. "We work with a lot of programs where we don’t get to the noncompliance, that’s fine, we’re working with the recipients of the grants to reach compliance."

But Wheeler said EPA does need to do more to address the issue of cumulative impacts, and that’s why he’s calling for a more proactive approach to community environmentalism.

Lead and Copper Rule

Wheeler said EPA is only weeks away from releasing its final Lead and Copper Rule, and ahead of that release the agency is busy mapping — for the first time — all lead service lines across the nation.

The EPA chief said the mapping effort was announced when the agency proposed its lead rule and said there’s no time frame at this point for completion, though it could take years.

A copy of the final draft of the rule obtained by E&E News shows EPA is planning to more than double the amount of time the nation’s water utilities have to replace service lines with serious lead contamination (Greenwire, Sept. 28).

Wheeler said that as part of the mapping project, EPA is reviewing public lines that go up to homes, but not private lines inside residences. EPA, he added, is having to test to find the location of pipes if local and state officials don’t already have that information.

"I’m not sure of the price tag, but we certainly have staff assigned to this," he said. "In some areas, it’s going to be easier than others."