After announcing Wednesday that he had been exposed to the coronavirus and would be quarantining, “out of an abundance of caution,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler recorded a brief speech at the agency’s headquarters. Although he was supposed to appear in person at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California, where a new exhibit is being dedicated to the late president’s environmental legacy, Wheeler instead spoke for just four minutes remotely from the agency’s offices in Washington, D.C.
The EPA did not respond to an inquiry from The Intercept as to why the administrator was in the agency’s offices after he said he intended to quarantine. Wheeler, looking sweaty and disheveled, made no mention of the virus in his remarks, which were streamed online, for the Nixon library. The emcee of the event described the EPA administrator in his introduction as simply “stuck in Washington.”
In his brief remarks, Wheeler paid homage to Nixon, who founded the EPA 50 years ago. The former president “did a lot of good during his presidency,” said Wheeler. “America is a much healthier, much safer place because of Richard Nixon’s actions during his time in office.” He added, “Then as now, it was a Republican president who was called on to balance the tensions of environmental protection and economic growth.”
Wheeler traced Nixon’s commitment to the environment to a 1969 visit to the site of the Santa Barbara oil spill. “From that moment, America’s environmental trajectory changed for the better. And it really hasn’t stopped.”
While environmental experts acknowledge that the disgraced president did actually take some important steps to reduce pollution and protect the environment, they do not say the same of Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry who took the helm of the agency from his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, in July 2018 and has presided over Trump’s unprecedented rollback of environmental protections.
“The Nixon era was, perhaps inadvertently, the peak of environmental legislation, while the Pruitt and Wheeler era are the lowest valleys,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. “These will be remembered as the dark ages of environmental protection.”
Gerrard noted that, in addition to rolling back environmental laws, under Wheeler the EPA decreased enforcement of those laws and lost a significant portion of its staff, many of whom were demoralized. Gerrard said that Wheeler’s term has also been marked by “a crushing of the strong momentum that had been building up to bring vigorous action to climate change.”
As he has done before, Wheeler tried to take credit for recent reductions in air pollution during the Nixon library event. “Air pollution has continued to plummet during Trump administration, down more than 7 percent since 2017,” he said. “There are cities in this country where the average life expectancy of a resident has grown by more than four years due to proper enforcement of the Clean Air Act signed into law by President Nixon on Dec 31, 1970, and enforced ever since by the EPA.”
John Walke, director of the clean air, climate, and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, disputed Wheeler’s characterization. “Wheeler’s legacy on air is uniformly awful. I’ve followed everything he and Trump and Pruitt have done on air since they took office, and it is an agenda of headlong rollbacks and increases in air pollution,” said Walke. “I have challenged Administrator Wheeler repeatedly on Twitter and through reporters to identify any rule he has signed that materially reduces air pollution, and he and the EPA have failed to provide a single example.”
On Wednesday, before issuing the statement about being exposed to the coronavirus, Wheeler hosted an event at EPA headquarters to commemorate the agency’s anniversary, according to an agency press release. The administrator also marked the day by announcing that he and the EPA were both on Parler, the right-wing social media site that has taken a lax approach to misinformation and become popular with many Trump supporters who refuse to accept that Joe Biden won the presidential election. (Among the posts recently trending on the site were #TrumpWon and #VoterFraud.)
In a series of posts on Parler, Wheeler celebrated the agency’s five-decade milestone and wrote, “EPA has delisted a record number Superfund sites for three consecutive years.”
Betsy Southerland, who worked at the EPA for 30 years and left in 2017, said that this statement was also misleading. According to Southerland, who spent part of her career in the federal Superfund program, the progress the agency made on these sites was done under previous administrations.
“Wheeler has done everything he can to relieve polluters of their civic duty to remove pollutants from air water and land,” said Southerland. “Instead he is bragging about the Superfund program. What he doesn’t recognize is that by repealing laws that prevent pollution, he is generating future Superfund sites that future administrations will have to clean up.”
Update: December 4, 2020
After publication, an EPA spokesperson responded to The Intercept’s request for comment and stated that Wheeler recorded his remarks on Wednesday.