On Tuesday, January 25, 2022, the Virginia Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources interviewed Andrew Wheeler, Acting Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources.  Committee members were able to ask the Acting Secretary a number of questions, and we want to set the record straight by comparing his responses to the facts.

Regarding Superfund Cleanup and Environmental Justice

What Wheeler said: “I cleaned up 82 Superfund sites, double that of the previous administration.”

The Facts: Virtually all of the cleanups Wheeler takes credit for had begun decades earlier, the backlog of Superfund sites awaiting funding for cleanup under Wheeler reached the highest point in 15 years, and the Trump Administration worked to cut the Superfund budget by $112 M in FY 2021. Two-thirds of expedited cleanups under Wheeler were in majority white communities, even though Superfund sites are more likely to be in communities of color  (InsideClimate News, 10-8-2020).

Regarding Climate Change

Question from Senator Lewis: “You do believe in climate change, don’t you?”

What Wheeler said: “Yes, I believe in climate change.”

The Facts: He made the same assertion during his U.S. Senate Confirmation hearing, saying climate change was an 8 or 9 on a 1-10 priority scale. Yet, once confirmed he said in an interview that the impacts of climate change were 50 to 75 years out. In the past, he also denied a link between hurricanes and climate change (E&E TV, 10-20-05) and said water vapor and clouds were as important to study as carbon emissions (E&E TV, 9-28-05).

What Wheeler said: “We finalized four regulations to address greenhouse gases…”

The Facts: Wheeler’s EPA weakened controls on methane one of the most potent greenhouse gasses; lowered fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks to the point that they were too weak for a number of leading auto manufacturers who pledged to stick to the previous standards; weakened controls on hydrofluorocarbons, also called “climate super-pollutants,” to the equivalent of putting 625,000 additional cars on the road each year; and issued a rule on aviation emissions that EPA itself has said will not result in any emission reductions and was obsolete as soon as it was finalized.

Regarding the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup 

Question from Senator Lewis: “I certainly very much appreciate your remarks regarding the Chesapeake Bay, but … I’m having trouble squaring that with the 90% cut in funding proposed to the Bay Programs during the Trump Administration while you were Director of EPA.”

What Wheeler said: “What I focused on [at EPA] was finding additional funding for the Bay, because $82 million was not enough…I focused on getting the resources that the Bay communities needed to clean up the bay and make a difference.”

The Facts: Wheeler defended cutting Chesapeake Bay Program funding from $73 million to $7.3 million, a 90 percent reduction, saying “it represents a more – common sense strategy to environmental regulation — one that places more emphasis on reducing the agency’s costs.”

His mishandling of the Bay cleanup drew the ire of Republicans, with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan saying: “At his confirmation hearing, the EPA administrator said: ‘I am very much committed to the Chesapeake Bay and the Chesapeake Bay Program.’ Instead, the Trump administration recklessly and repeatedly proposes gutting Chesapeake Bay funding.”

What Wheeler said: “I have been a strong proponent for the bay and I can get the job done.”

The Facts: Wheeler’s EPA was so inept at the Bay Cleanup that Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia had to sue them to force them to hold Pennsylvania and New York accountable to the TMDL.

What Wheeler said: “The governor believes that with my unique background of having run the EPA, and working in a senior leadership position in the US Senate, that I know how to access federal funding and assistance to make a difference for the state.”

The Facts:  Federal resources are already flowing to the state and Virginia localities. Because of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Virginia and localities in Virginia have already been allocated billions of dollars of federal funding that can be tapped into to help fix our CSO and water infrastructure issues. And as EPA Administrator, Wheeler only worked to cut funding for his own agency, backing up to 31 percent reductions to EPA, which would have limited the resources and EPA expertise available to states had Congress not stepped in.

Regarding Science and Health

Question from Senator Hashmi: “…Should you be appointed… How do you plan to engage or listen to collaborate with… our climate scientists?

What Wheeler said: Certainly, one of the things I did when I got to the agencies, I asked for detailed briefings from the career climate scientists at the agency…I relied upon the science advice from the agency scientists.

The Facts: Wheeler routinely sidelined or silenced scientists, sometimes completely dismissing their findings and recommendations. For example, he ignored the findings of career employees that a tighter annual limit on particulate matter, aka “soot,” was needed to prevent thousands of premature deaths. He also dismissed the findings of a Harvard University study linking long-term exposure to slightly increased levels of fine particles to sharply higher death rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, Wheeler leaned on the recommendation of EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee; Wheeler had previously replaced members of the CASAC with individuals with close ties to the fossil fuel industry. The disbanded members formed their own advisory group.

Question from Senator Mason: “….your administration took particular aim at epidemiological research on the health impacts of particulate matter, particularly with agency clean air standards…how do you respond?

What Wheeler said: “…some of the complaints were that I didn’t want health data of people to be used. And that’s, that’s not the case…”

The Facts: Wheeler pushed a new “transparency” rule at EPA that could keep the agency from considering some of the most well-documented health research in the world – in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic. The rule came under immediate fire for its ability to give industry and other foes of regulation a new legal avenue for challenging environmental protections in ways that could lead to thousands of additional premature deaths, with regulations related to climate and clean air especially at risk.