Senate confirms acting EPA chief Wheeler for permanent role

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Thursday confirmed former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, despite concerns by Democrats and one Republican about regulatory rollbacks he's made in eight months as the agency's acting chief.

Senators voted 52-47 to confirm Wheeler, who was nominated by President Donald Trump after former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned last year amid a series of ethics allegations.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate environment committee, called Wheeler "uniquely qualified" to lead EPA and said that under Wheeler the agency is putting forward proposals that "both protect our environment and allow the country's economy to flourish."

But Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Wheeler was failing to protect the environment and human health and was "nominated to unravel and undo the environmental protections that are now in place."

Wheeler, 54, was confirmed as deputy administrator last April and became acting chief in July after Pruitt resigned. He worked at the EPA early in his career and was a top aide at the Senate Environment Committee before becoming a lobbyist a decade ago.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the sole Republican to oppose Wheeler. She said in a statement that, unlike Pruitt, Wheeler "understands the mission of the EPA and acts in accordance with ethical standards. However, the policies he has supported as acting administrator are not in the best interest of our environment and public health, particularly given the threat of climate change to our nation."

Collins said she was particularly concerned that EPA has proposed to roll back rules regulating mercury emissions from power plants and moved to replace the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama's signature proposal to combat climate change.

10 PHOTOS
Former Director of Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt
See Gallery
Former Director of Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks to employees of the Agency in Washington, U.S., February 21, 2017.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), greets employees of the agency in Washington, U.S., February 21, 2017.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Director of Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt is sworn in by Justice Samuel Alito as his wife Marilyn holds a bible during ceremony at the Executive Office in Washington, U.S., February 17, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), greets employees of the agency in Washington, U.S., February 21, 2017.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's pick as head of the Environmental Protectional Agency, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2017.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2017.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R), U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meets with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) (L) in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 4, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's pick as head of the Environmental Protectional Agency, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2017.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Oklahoma Farm Bureau Vice President of Public Policy John R.H. Collison (L) meets with Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) to discuss state water issues at the attorney generals office in Oklahoma City, July 29, 2014.

(REUTERS/Nick Oxford)

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in a meeting at his office in Oklahoma City, July 29, 2014. 

(REUTERS/Nick Oxford)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"There is no doubt that the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change pose a significant threat" to Maine and the nation, Collins said, adding that pollution from coal-fired power plants threatens Maine's natural resources, "from our working forests, fishing and agricultural industries, to tourism and recreation."

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who supported Wheeler's nomination as deputy last year, voted against his promotion.

Wheeler was not making "meaningful progress" on clean water standards, Manchin said, citing the agency's failure to limit the amount of highly toxic chemicals contaminating drinking water in West Virginia and around the country.

The EPA has announced plans to place legal limits on the chemicals but has not yet done so. The perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, have been linked to health threats ranging from cancer to decreased fertility.

"I believe immediate action must be taken, and these efforts lack a sense of urgency," Manchin said.

Like Collins, Manchin also said he was concerned at EPA's attempt to undo rules designed to limit emissions of mercury, which can damage the brains of infants and young children.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, slammed Wheeler, saying that while his behavior is "less cartoonish" than Pruitt, he supports the same policies.

"Wheeler wants to turn the EPA into a wish-granting service for polluters, no matter the cost to public health or wildlife. But it's only a matter of time before his dirty dealings land him in the same trash heap as his predecessor," said Emily Knobbe, EPA policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group.

America's Power, a trade group that represents coal producers, applauded Wheeler's confirmation.

"During his time as acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler has been seen as a thoughtful leader who understands the need for sensible environmental policies," said Michelle Bloodworth, the group's president and CEO. Wheeler's "long experience in public service demonstrates his integrity in serving EPA's mission," she said.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.