RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Despite weeks of hype, a Virginia Senate hearing on former Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's nomination to a top state environmental job offered few fireworks, though the controversial nominee's future is still unknown.
“With my unique background, and working in a senior leadership position in the Senate, I know how to access federal funding and get assistance for the state,” Wheeler said during an hour-long hearing Tuesday before the state’s Senate Agriculture Committee.
A former lobbyist for coal mining company Murray Energy who became head of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration, Wheeler has been nominated by new Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin to be Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, one of the state’s top environmental positions.
His nomination last month was followed quickly with condemnation from those in and outside the commonwealth.
Democratic state Senator Scott Surovell told the New York Times that Virginia governors "tend not to propose people for these positions that are all that polarizing,” suggesting Wheeler is the most controversial pick in the last 20 years.
A letter signed by over 150 bipartisan former EPA employees described Wheeler as having “an extremist approach, methodically weakening EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment, instead favoring polluters.”
“Mr. Wheeler also sidelined science at the agency, ignored both agency and outside experts, rolled back rules to cut greenhouse gasses and protect the climate, and took steps to hamstring EPA and slow efforts to set the agency back on course after he left office,” the letter states.
But questions from the Senate committee Tuesday were mostly cordial, giving the former coal lobbyist plenty of room to tout his accomplishments.
Questions about cutting funding from Chesapeake Bay programs came first, when Democratic Senator Lynwood Lewis, whose district encompasses the state’s Eastern Shore, asked about headline-making changes under former President Donald Trump that saw millions cut from bay projects.
“It was a program that was never authorized by Congress,” Wheeler said of $82 million cut from the bay’s geographic program under the former president.
“That was a political issue between the White House and Congress, what I did was try and find other funding for the bay,” he added, citing funds he raised for wastewater programs in Norfolk and Baltimore. “I secured half a billion for the bay."
As for future projects, when asked by Republican Senator Richard Stuart about Virginia’s ongoing efforts to limit pollution – recent reports have suggested Richmond city's sewage plant is dumping billions of gallons of waste into the local James River – Wheeler said he’s already planned meetings with Mayor Levar Stoney to discuss plans to fund sewer improvements.
“We’ll come up with creative approaches to find the funding,” he said, pointing to so-called opportunity zones passed as part of former President Donald Trump's 2017 tax cuts, which offered new grants to rural Pennsylvania farmers to help them get in compliance with federal standards.
The hardest line of questioning came from Democrat Joe Morrissey, a Central Virginia senator who votes less along party lines than most of his colleagues.
“All of the things you’ve said, why do you think you’re such a lightning rod for controversy?” Morrissey asked.
“I don’t think the things I did at EPA were covered very well by the press,” Wheeler replied, echoing his former boss's distain for the fourth estate.
While elected officials were respectful Tuesday, that same energy was missing from environmental activists who said they’ve long tracked Wheeler’s actions.
Lee Francis, deputy director of Virginia League of Conservation Voters, called the hearing a “whitewash” of the former federal administrator's career.
He pointed to efforts to reduce limits on PFAS, so-called forever chemicals that show up in drinking water, as among Wheeler’s mistakes. And then there was a 2018 rollback of controls on asbestos imports, when the the agency recategorized the chemical as naturally occurring after an American company failed to report several hundred tons of the dangerous substance. A legal fight ensued and a federal judge in California forced the agency to fix the problem after it failed to “act in accordance with law.”
“We’re aware of the damage he can do from inside an environmental agency and we’re committed to make sure that doesn’t happen here in Virginia,” Francis said of Wheeler.
Francis was also less confident of Wheeler’s future in Youngkin’s cabinet. After a hearing in the Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday, he’ll still face a confirmation vote in the Senate in the coming weeks.
“There’s what goes on in public hearings and there’s what senators tell advocates like us,” he said. “I think we still have the votes to defeat his nomination.”
Youngkin, meanwhile, has stood by his nominee. In a statement released after the letter from former EPA employees was released, the governor's office said Wheeler would do critical work for the environment within his administration.
"Virginians want more from their elected officials than partisan bickering,” spokeswoman Macaulay Porter wrote.
Those anti-Wheeler votes might be less secure than Francis hopes. In an interview after Tuesday's hearing, Morrissey said he thought Wheeler "hit it out of the park."
“I’m on the James River every weekend in the summer and fall with my kids, and I want to enjoy that without 2 billion gallons of raw sewage," the senator said of the nominee's promise to aid Richmond with its waste problems. "If he comes up with a solution to that, he’s got my vote.”
As for concerns that Wheeler's career was whitewashed, Morrissey said there were half a dozen other Democrats on the committee and they all had the chance to ask questions like he did.
"If there was whitewashing, then the Democrats on the committee were complicit," he said.
Virginia's 2022 legislative session runs through mid-March.
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