EPA deputy says he's not interested in Pruitt’s job

EPA deputy says he's not interested in Pruitt’s job
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The deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says he’s not interested in taking over for embattled administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Controversial Trump adviser reportedly returning to EPA | Delta aims to be first carbon neutral airline | Dem senator gives EPA D-minus on 'forever chemicals' Architect of controversial EPA policies to return as chief of staff: report EPA asked to justify proposal to limit power of its science advisers MORE

Andrew Wheeler, who came to the EPA in April after a mostly party-line confirmation vote, would become the acting administrator if Pruitt were to resign or if President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE were to fire him for the numerous ethics and spending scandals that have come to light in recent months.

While Trump’s supporters and detractors have held up Wheeler as a capable replacement, Wheeler said he’s not angling for the job and hasn’t been preparing for a potential Pruitt departure.

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“I’m the deputy administrator, that’s the position I signed up for, that’s the position I wanted. I didn’t want to be the administrator, still don’t want to be the administrator,” Wheeler said to The Hill from his office in the EPA’s Washington headquarters, just down the hall from Pruitt’s.

“I’m here to help Administrator Pruitt with his agenda and President Trump’s agenda for the agency. That’s what my job is.”

For the last few months, news outlets and investigations have uncovered a steady stream of scandals involving Pruitt. He rented a condo from a lobbyist for $50 per night he stayed there, racked up millions of taxpayer dollars in security costs, spent $43,000 on a secure phone booth for his office and used his staff for personal tasks like getting his wife a job and finding a lotion that he likes. 

Wheeler, a former energy company lobbyist who used to be a senior congressional aide under Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeLobbying World GOP chairman after Africa trip: US military drawdown would have 'real and lasting negative consequences' Overnight Energy: Controversial Trump adviser reportedly returning to EPA | Delta aims to be first carbon neutral airline | Dem senator gives EPA D-minus on 'forever chemicals' MORE (R-Okla.), was confirmed to his post amid the Pruitt controversies.

Democrats said that Wheeler’s nomination should have been given the level of scrutiny that Pruitt’s did early in 2017.

“The problem with the Wheeler nomination is if Trump [fires Pruitt] tomorrow, Wheeler is, in fact, the administrator, and that is a very, very serious problem,” Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Defense: Lawmakers tear into Pentagon over .8B for border wall | Dems offer bill to reverse Trump on wall funding | Senators urge UN to restore Iran sanctions Overnight Energy: EPA moves to limit financial pressure on 'forever chemical' manufacturers | California sues Trump over water order| Buttigieg expands on climate plan Now is our chance to turn the tide on ocean plastic pollution MORE (D-N.M.) said at the time.

But Wheeler said he’s not getting ready for that.

“No, there’s nothing, in particular, I’ve done to prepare for that,” he said.

Wheeler, who worked at the EPA as a career employee in its toxic substances office in the early 1990s, said he has three priorities for his time at the agency: reducing the time to decide on permits, reducing the time to work through enforcement matters and improve the EPA’s ability to communicate environmental risks to the public, like poor air quality or potential water pollution.

“While we have good risk communicators across the agency, that’s something we aren’t consistent in,” Wheeler said.

As an example of needing better communication, he brought up the period of time after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when the EPA incorrectly told New Yorkers that the air near Ground Zero was safe. 

“We need to do a better job,” he said.

That is particularly important, Wheeler said, in areas with high concentrations of minority populations. They are often closest to manufacturing and other polluting sites, and the EPA has an “environmental justice” responsibility to consider the unique impacts of pollution on them. 

“We need to make sure that our communication message is easy to understand and we can communicate, particularly to parents with children, when they live near a facility, or if there’s a release, what the risk is that they and their families face,” he said.