RICHMOND, Va. – A group of approximately 130 former US Environmental Protection Agency employees and others who worked directly with Andrew Wheeler wrote to the Virginia Senate over the weekend urging lawmakers to approve the former EPA administrator’s nomination to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s cabinet.
The letter marks the latest example of activism around Wheeler’s unusually controversial appointment as secretary of natural and historic resources.
Youngkin’s selection of Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who headed the EPA under former President Donald Trump’s administration, sparked an immediate backlash from environmental groups and some US Senate members. State controlled by Democrats. Other former EPA workers and a union representing current agency staff both urged lawmakers to vote against Wheeler.
“We are sending this letter to refute the politically charged letters you have received from people who do not know Mr. Wheeler. These letters are highly biased and unsubstantiated,” Sunday’s letter said.
The letter presented Wheeler as a “strong supporter of Clean Air Act programs”, citing as an example the finalization in 2020 of the first greenhouse gas emissions standards for aircraft.
Wheeler also oversaw a campaign to revise a drinking water rule and worked to improve the national recycling rate, says the letter, which was signed by 125 people.
“All told, during Mr. Wheeler’s career, he has improved the lives of millions of Americans through his unwavering commitments to a better and healthier environment,” they wrote. “He worked collaboratively down the aisle and with the diverse range of environmental stakeholders to create these positive results.
Mandy Gunasekara, who served as the EPA’s chief of staff for part of Wheeler’s tenure as administrator, handled the logistics of the letter. She said in an interview that Wheeler was detail-oriented, balanced, and knowledgeable on a wide range of technical issues.
“That means when you come to tell him about something, you really have to do your homework,” she said.
In addition to former EPA employees, the signatories to the letter included people who worked with Wheeler when he was on the staff of Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and two former natural resources secretaries from Virginia.
Wheeler’s critics have called his leadership at the EPA too sympathetic to corporate interests and accused him of downplaying the threats of climate change.
Wheeler said his tenure as a director was not fairly covered in the media.
It is unusual in Virginia for Cabinet Secretaries to attract Wheeler’s degree of scrutiny. The process is generally quite superficial, with approval of the governor’s choices being seen as a courtesy, in the absence of major controversies.
Wheeler’s nomination was not expected to spark opposition in the GOP-controlled State House. Democrats have a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, but at least one Democrat, centrist Joe Morrissey, has signaled his willingness to consider voting to endorse Wheeler.
Approval of Cabinet nominees typically passes through the General Assembly in the form of a resolution that begins at the committee level and then proceeds to a floor vote. A committee hearing could take place as early as Tuesday.
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