WASHINGTON — Andrew Wheeler, the new acting chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, signaled a more inclusive approach at the agency, telling staffers roiled by months of ethics allegations against his predecessor, “You will find me and my team ready to listen.”
In his first remarks to agency staffers since Scott Pruitt‘s resignation last week, Wheeler said he recognized the stress that many might be feeling about the change at the top and sought to reassure them. “I value your input and your feedback,” he said.
Wheeler made no mention of the allegations that led to Pruitt’s departure, including Pruitt’s lavish spending on travel and security and his alleged misuse of office for personal gains. But he did address concerns raised by environmentalists and some critics in Congress about his own lobbying work for the coal industry, invoking his grandfather, who worked in the coal mines.
The term coal lobbyist “has been used by some people in a derogatory manner, but I am actually proud of the work I did,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, who had served as Pruitt’s deputy, has expressed conservative political views on environmental issues, including on climate-changing fossil fuel emissions.
When President Donald Trump called him last week about the job change, the president told him to “clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief,” Wheeler said. “I think we can do all three of these things at the same time.”
Speaking to agency staff in a wood-paneled hall at EPA headquarters, Wheeler outlined priorities that included many of Pruitt’s, including cleaning up Superfund sites and improving water infrastructure. Citing the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, Wheeler also said giving the public and businesses timely and consistent warnings of health risks would be an increased priority while he leads the agency.
He called for quick decisions on any enforcement action against polluters but added, “I am not advocating for letting people off the hook or reducing fines.”
He did not mention climate change.
Trump has not said publicly whether Wheeler — who served in the EPA in the 1990s before going on to work for Republican lawmakers in Congress — or someone else is his choice as a permanent replacement for Pruitt.
Like Pruitt, Wheeler invited news cameras and reporters into his first big staff meeting. Pruitt’s administration at the agency at times was openly hostile to journalists, shutting press out of EPA meetings on regulatory issues, refusing to give advance word of Pruitt’s schedule and even deleting calendar items after the fact to try to conceal them, according to accounts of former and current Pruitt aides to investigators of the House Oversight Committee.
Wheeler, by contrast, has made clear he wants a more transparent agency “so people know and understand what we are doing,” John Konkus, the agency’s deputy associate administrator, said in a statement earlier this week.
And by Wednesday, Wheeler’s schedules for the day were posted on the agency website. The day — his third as acting chief — included a session at the White House and calls with lawmakers.
Addressing his coal lobbying, Wheeler said his work entailed a successful effort to push health care for retired coal miners, as well as attempts to boost benefits and pensions for them.
“I don’t think that story has been out there, and I think as employees of the agency you need to know that,” he said.
Wheeler attended a 2017 meeting with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and coal executive Robert Murray, who was pitching the Trump administration on a package of legislation favoring the coal industry.
Wheeler talked about his grandfather, who worked in the coal mines in the Depression, and about still having company-issued scrip that his grandmother had used to buy food at a coal-company store.