Wheeler to staff: ‘My instinct will be to defend your work’

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2018

EPA’s new boss, Andrew Wheeler, isn’t expected to veer much from ex-Administrator Scott Pruitt’s agenda, but his tone is different.

Wheeler, who took over Monday as acting administrator after Pruitt’s resignation last week, spoke to staff and the press today in a standing-room-only speech in agency headquarters.

Wheeler 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 said.

As for his agenda atop EPA, Wheeler said, “When President Trump called me last week and asked me to take the lead, he asked me to focus on three key areas. He said clean up the air, clean up the water and provide regulatory relief. I think we can do all three of those things at the same time.”

While Pruitt was known for alienating career staff during his tenure, agency employees who showed up to listen today said they were cautiously optimistic.

And Wheeler praised EPA staffers and pledged to listen to them and try to minimize the stress that comes with a leadership change. He also announced that Henry Darwin, EPA’s chief of operations, will be acting as deputy administrator.

“I understand how stressful that change can be, and I want you to know that I understand that and I will try to minimize the stress that you all deal with on a daily basis and as employees here at the agency,” Wheeler said in EPA’s Rachel Carson Green Room.

In his roughly 15-minute speech, Wheeler called EPA staff “some of the most dedicated of all the federal career employees.”

He emphasized his former position as an EPA employee in the 1990s: “Just like me, you came to EPA to help the environment. I know firsthand how dedicated and passionate you are, and it is a privilege to work alongside you and lead the agency in its vital mission of protecting human health and the environment.”

He added, “To the employees, I want you to know that I will start with the presumption that you are performing our work as well as it can be done. My instinct will be to defend your work, and I will seek the facts from you before drawing conclusions.”

The event was open to staff on a first-come, first-served basis. Other staffers tuned in on their computers and televisions.

One longtime EPA career employee who declined to give his name called the speech “very positive” and upbeat. When asked to compare the newcomer Wheeler to Pruitt, that person said, “We think [Wheeler] has a higher regard for what we’re doing.”

Another EPA career employee said she was grateful that he had invited staffers, and was excited to see what’s next.

A staffer who wasn’t in the room but watched the speech said, “It was more human than Pruitt. I think folks will be encouraged that the days of our boss blaming and hating us are over.”

One detail that several career staff brought up was that a hallway in the administrator’s suite had been opened up since Pruitt’s departure. The hallway was off-limits to career staff under Pruitt, which rankled some employees because the hallway connects two important corridors in the sprawling headquarters.

The hallway is lined with portraits of past administrators. Ex-Obama EPA chief Gina McCarthy’s portrait isn’t among them, although it has been completed. EPA officials said they’re working with McCarthy’s staff to arrange a time to hang it. They said the hallway will remain open under Wheeler’s leadership.

Asked why he wanted to attend today’s event, one career employee joked, “Because the doors were open.”

Among those in the crowd today were Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Wheeler’s former boss, and at least a dozen political staffers. Wheeler didn’t take questions from the crowd.

Pruitt wasn’t there, but he remains in Washington, according to an EPA official. It’s unclear what the ex-EPA boss will do next.