RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — More than 150 former Environmental Protection Agency employees on Friday urged the Virginia Senate to oppose the nomination of former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to the cabinet of the GOP Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin.
Youngkin announced last week that he had chosen Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led the EPA during the last years of the Trump administration, to serve as Virginia’s natural resources secretary, a similar state-level role . The announcement sparked an immediate backlash from the state’s conservation community, and many Democratic senators publicly announced their opposition.
Former EPA officials who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations detailed their concerns to the Democratic-led House in the precisely worded letter, which was first shared with The Associated Press.
“As Administrator of the EPA, Mr. Wheeler pursued an extremist approach, methodically weakening the EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment, instead of favoring polluters. Mr Wheeler also ostracized science from the agency, ignored both the agency and outside experts, rolled back rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and protecting the climate, and took measures to cripple the EPA and slow efforts to get the agency back on track after leaving office,” they wrote.
In a statement to the AP, a spokeswoman for Youngkin reaffirmed the governor-elect’s position that Wheeler is the right person for the job.
“Andrew will do the essential work of protecting the Chesapeake Bay, supporting the Virginia Coastal Restoration Authority, stopping the unnecessary dumping of raw sewage into the James River and Potomac, and defending our environment. Virginians want more from their elected officials than partisan bickering,” spokeswoman Macaulay Porter wrote.
The 158 signatories to the letter include two deputy EPA administrators and two former administrators from the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region, of which Virginia is a part. One of the former regional administrators was appointed during the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan. Three former directors of EPA’s Science Advisory Board have signed on, along with deputy administrators, attorneys, scientists, and other core staff.
Wheeler worked in the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances early in his career. He then worked from 1995 to 2009 on the staff of Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a staunch man-made climate change denier, and for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, before becoming lobbyist.
His client list included Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies.
He took over the EPA post 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 has generally decided to delegate a range of public health and environmental enforcement to states and rolling back the protections put in place under President Barack Obama.
While Wheeler was in the top job, the Trump administration ordered a radical about-face on Obama-era efforts to tackle climate change, working to ease restrictions on coal-fired power plants. The EPA also decided to revoke California authority to set auto mileage standards and dropped an Obama-era regulation opposed by developers and farmers who have protected many American wetlands and waterways 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 decided to reverse many Trump-era rollbacks.
The former EPA employees warned that Wheeler would “significantly undermine the strides the Virginia legislature has recently made to advance clean energy and address climate change.”
They also noted that Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA administrator and Republican governor of New Jersey, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece., warned Congress in 2019 not to confirm Wheeler for the EPA post.
In Virginia, Cabinet secretaries are subject to confirmation by the State House, now controlled by the GOP, and the Senate. The process is generally quite superficial, with approval of the governor’s picks being seen as a courtesy in the absence of major controversies. If Senate Democrats stay united, their 21-19 majority could end Wheeler’s nomination, even without the support of fellow Republicans.
Christopher Zarba, former director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board personnel office, was among those urging senators to vote against Wheeler. He told the AP he was used to adapting to the approaches of political appointees during his 38 years at the EPA as a scientist and director, but he said “atrocities against science” had been committed under Pruitt and Wheeler.
“It was widely recognized that the previous administration, and Andrew Wheeler was part of it, largely served vested interests at the expense of quality science and public health,” Zarba said.
Penelope Fenner-Crisp, former deputy director of the Office of Pesticide Programs and longtime resident of Virginia, was the driving force behind the letter. She said more than 150 people signed up within two days of using an EPA alumni mailing list to spread it, focusing on people living in Virginia or the Virginia watershed. Chesapeake Bay.