RICHMOND, Va. – A group of about 130 former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employees and others who have worked directly with Andrew Wheeler wrote to the Virginia Senate over the weekend to urge lawmakers to approve the former EPA administrator's nomination to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's Cabinet.
The letter marks the latest instance 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 led the EPA during the administration of former President Donald Trump, sparked an immediate backlash from environmental groups and some members of the Democrat-controlled state Senate. Other ex-EPA workers and a union representing current agency staff have both urged lawmakers to vote against Wheeler.
“We are sending this letter to rebut politically charged letters you received from people who do not know Mr. Wheeler. These letters are highly biased and unsupported,” Sunday's letter said.
The letter touted Wheeler as a “strong supporter of Clean Air Act” programs, citing as one example the 2020 finalization of the first greenhouse gas emissions standards for aircraft.
Wheeler also oversaw a push to overhaul a clean-drinking-water rule and worked to improve the national recycling rate, said the letter, which was signed by 125 people.
“All told, over the course of Mr. Wheeler’s career, he has improved the lives of millions of Americans through his steadfast commitments to a better, healthier environment," they wrote. “He has worked collaboratively across the aisle and with the diverse range of environmental stakeholders to create these positive outcomes.”
Mandy Gunasekara, who served as EPA 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, even-keeled and knowledgeable about a wide range of technical issues.
“It means when you come in to brief him on something, you really need to do your homework,” she said.
In addition to former EPA employees, signatories to the letter included people who worked with Wheeler when he was a staffer for Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, and two former Virginia secretaries of natural resources.
Critics of Wheeler have characterized his leadership at the EPA as overly deferential to corporate interests and accused him of downplaying the threats of climate change.
Wheeler has said his tenure as administrator was not covered fairly in the news media.
It is unusual in Virginia for Cabinet secretaries to draw the degree of scrutiny that Wheeler has. The process is usually fairly perfunctory, with the approval of the governor’s choices seen as a courtesy, absent major controversies.
Wheeler's nomination was not expected to draw 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 a willingness to consider voting to approve Wheeler.
The approval of Cabinet nominees typically moves through the General Assembly in the form of a resolution that begins at a committee level then moves to a floor vote. A committee hearing could come as soon as Tuesday.