Two worrying signs at Andrew Wheeler's EPA

Keith Gaby

As former energy industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler settles into his new job as acting head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he has a brief window to distinguish himself from the disastrous tenure of Scott Pruitt.

It won’t be enough to avoid ordering used Trump hotel mattresses or renting a condo from lobbyists. Wheeler needs to put a stop to Pruitt’s most serious scandal: Undermining health protections for American families as a favor to politically connected industries.

As Pruitt was exiting, however, there were two fresh signs that this culture of corruption and pollution remains present:

1. Legally binding truck pollution limits thrown out

At the behest of a company that prominently hosted an event for then-candidate Donald Trump, the EPA said it would not enforce legally binding pollution limits for super polluting freight trucks – old diesel engines used in a new chassis that discharge lethal particulate pollution at up to 450 times that of modern engines. Just one year of sales of these trucks would result in up to 1,600 deaths, according to the EPA’s own analysis.

This unlawful action is designed to circumvent the extensive public opposition to this dangerous loophole voiced by the American Lung Association, leading engine manufacturers, the American Trucking Association, and moms.

2. News broke that EPA suppressed report on toxic dangers

It was also reported that EPA’s political leadership has been suppressing a report that found most Americans are inhaling enough formaldehyde vapor in their daily lives to risk developing leukemia and other ailments.

As a Senate staffer in 2004, Wheeler participated in similar efforts to delay an earlier version of the formaldehyde report and has recently lobbied on some issues for Celanese, a major manufacturer of formaldehyde. This highly toxic chemical is used by politically connected companies, including Koch Industries.

A conflicts of interest “collision course”

While Wheeler was Pruitt’s chief deputy at the time we learned about all this, he could start his time as boss by showing he’s different.

But he has already praised President Trump and Pruitt for their work so far at the agency. “We have made tremendous progress over the past year and a half,” he told EPA employees this week.

There’s also strong reason to believe that Wheeler’s career as a lobbyist will foreshadow his approach to government. He was paid by large companies to oppose limits on pollution, using his political connections.

Letting Pruitt’s decisions stand on these two issues will be the first indication that Wheeler plans to continue to operate in this fashion. Unfortunately, it’s already obvious that Wheeler is “on a collision course” over conflicts of interest.

While he has said he will not be involved in decisions regarding some of his former clients, Bloomberg News reports that it will be almost impossible to enforce that pledge, and that it can be waived by officials who report to Wheeler.

Common sense indicates that Wheeler cannot keep his pledge in an effective way. His dozens of clients in the energy and chemical industry are affected by nearly every major decision at the EPA.

Wheeler’s moment of truth

Wheeler recently objected to being called a coal lobbyist. “I get frustrated with the media when they report I was a coal lobbyist,” he said. “Yes, I represented a coal company, but I also represented a cheese company. I represented a lot of different businesses, a lot of different interests.” 

If Wheeler would like to dispel the idea that he’s only serving powerful interests instead of public health, real action on truck pollution, toxic chemicals and carbon pollution would be a good place to start.

He can even do a favor or two for Big Cheese, if that’s what it takes.

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