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 PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas 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 TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency 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 InhofeTrump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Steady Kavanaugh proves to be a tough target for Democrats 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 UdallTrump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Senate Dems want DOJ review of Giuliani's work for foreign entities McCain's former chief of staff considering Senate bid as Democrat 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.