WASHINGTON — The new acting chief of the Environmental Protection Agency defended his past lobbying work with the coal industry on Wednesday as he addressed agency employees roiled by months of ethics allegations against former administrator Scott Pruitt.
Andrew Wheeler spoke to staffers for the first time since President Donald Trump announced Pruitt’s resignation last Thursday.
Like Pruitt and Trump, Wheeler has expressed many conservative political views on environmental issues, including on climate-changing fossil fuel emissions.
Speaking in a wood-paneled hall at agency headquarters, Wheeler made no mention of the allegations that forced out Pruitt, including Pruitt’s lavish spending on travel and security and his alleged misuse of office for personal gains.
But Wheeler, who had served as Pruitt’s chief deputy, said he understood the stress of top-level management changes. And in contrast to Pruitt, a politically ambitious conservative accused of shutting out all but his political appointees at the agency, Wheeler promised to defend and seek input from all agency employees.
“I value your input and your feedback, and you will find me and my team ready to listen,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler did not take questions. But he made a point of addressing his links to the coal industry, including recent lobbying work. Environmental groups and others have said Wheeler’s coal lobbying conflicts with a mission that includes regulating coal and other fossil fuel industries.
The term coal lobbyist, he said, “has been used by some people in a derogatory manner, but I am actually proud of the work I did,” Wheeler said.
That work entailed a successful effort to push health care for retired coal miners, as well as attempts to boost benefits and pensions for them, Wheeler said.
Wheeler attended a 2017 meeting with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and coal executive Robert Murray, who was pitching the Trump administration on a package of legislation favoring the coal industry.
Wheeler talked about his grandfather who worked in the coal mines in the Depression and about still having company-issued scrip that his grandmother had used to buy food at a coal-company store.
“I don’t think that story has been out there, and I think as employees of the agency you need to know that,” he said.
He outlined priorities that included many of Pruitt’s, including cleaning up Superfund sites and improving water infrastructure. Citing the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, Wheeler also said giving the public and businesses timely and consistent warnings of health risks would be an increased priority while he leads the agency.
Trump has not said publicly whether Wheeler — who served in the EPA in the 1990s before going on to work for Republican lawmakers in Congress — or someone else is his choice as a permanent replacement for Pruitt.