Acting EPA chief looks to reassure staff after Pruitt’s resignation

Acting EPA chief looks to reassure staff after Pruitt’s resignation
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In his first major appearance since taking the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) helm on Monday, new acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler sought to reassure the agency's more than 14,000 staffers that he has their back, despite turbulence within the EPA.

Wheeler on Wednesday addressed dozens of staffers at EPA's headquarters and thousands watching around the country, recognizing the tumultuous climate at the nation’s environmental agency and trying to dispel any concerns of ongoing turmoil.


“I do understand first-hand the stress that goes along with a change in management or a reorganization, and we are going through that change now. And I understand how stressful that can be,” Wheeler said, referring to his predecessor, Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA employees push 'bill of rights' to protect scientific integrity EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks Overnight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses MORE, who stepped down last week amid months of growing spending and ethics scandals.

“And I want you to know that I understand that and I will try to minimize the stress that you all deal with on a daily basis as employees here at the agency.” 

Wheeler allowed dozens of journalists into EPA headquarters to watch the speech, breaking with Pruitt, who rarely let reporters attend his appearances.

Wheeler emphasized his support for EPA staff, stating an "instinct" to "defend" their work "before drawing conclusions."

“I know that many of you developed a passion for the environment at an early age and pursued a career at EPA for that reason. Just like me, you came to EPA to help the environment, I know first-hand how dedicated and passionate you are and it is a privilege to work alongside you and lead EPA in its vital mission of protecting human health and the environment,” he said.

“I will start with the presumption that you are performing your work as well as it can be done. My instinct will be to defend your work and I will seek the facts from you before drawing conclusions.”

Wheeler also used the speech to defend his image.

Before being confirmed as EPA's deputy administrator in April, he worked for nine years as a consultant and lobbyist at Faegre Baker Daniels, representing numerous clients — including coal miner Murray Energy Corp. and uranium producer Energy Fuels Inc.

“I had a number of clients. If you read the press, I only had one, but I actually had over 20 clients, a wide range of clients, working with different companies, trade associations, some public sector clients, some private sector clients, some NGOs, I worked for an air quality management district in California,” he said. “And I did work for a coal company. I’m not at all ashamed of the work I did for the coal company.”

Wheeler went off-script to say that he was “proud” of the work he did on behalf of Murray, especially pushing for legislation to rescue miners’ healthcare and pension funds.

Wheeler, who served as a career employee at the EPA for four years in the early 1990s, also spoke positively of Pruitt, making it clear he wouldn’t stray far from the former EPA head's policy priorities like undoing regulations, improving the permitting process for companies and pushing for greater power among states.

“We’re also restoring the rule of law, reigning in federal regulatory overreach and refocusing EPA on its core responsibilities. As a result, the economy is booming and economic optimism is surging,” he said.

“We will continue to build on these accomplishments.”

Beyond that, Wheeler said he wants to improve certainty for state agencies dealing with the EPA, improve permitting and enforcement guarantees, and improve how the agency communicates about potential environmental risks.

Wheeler also tapped Henry Darwin, the EPA’s chief of operations, to fill his role as acting deputy administrator.

Some EPA career staff who had been highly skeptical of Pruitt appeared to receive Wheeler’s speech positively.

“I was impressed with his openness and his understanding of how the career staff have felt over the last 18 months,” said one career employee. “I have cautious optimism that morale will improve.”

The Sierra Club, however, wasn’t impressed.

“The next Administrator of the EPA needs to restore public trust in the agency, let it fulfill its mission, and clean up Scott Pruitt’s mess, but Andrew Wheeler is doing nothing but following in Pruitt’s dirty footsteps,” said Maura Cowley, director of the group’s Resist campaign.

“Wheeler looks a lot like Pruitt 2.0, and no one should have confidence that he will do what is necessary to keep our families safe from the corporate polluters who signed his paychecks just months ago.”

Since Wheeler can remain acting administrator for 210 days without being confirmed by the Senate. Trump has not indicated whether he would nominate Wheeler or someone else for the post.