EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies on Capitol Hill in January.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies on Capitol Hill in January. Andrew Harnik/AP

EPA Chief Admits That Brain Drain Puts Agency at 'Critical Juncture'

Wheeler defends Trump budget cuts that lawmakers of both parties resist.

President Trump’s proposal for a 31 percent cut in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget is justified as part of a “bold agenda” that combines public health with economic growth, EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler told House appropriators on Tuesday.

But when grilled on the agency’s failure to fill vacancies left by a “recent exodus” of experts and enforcement personnel, Wheeler said, “We are trying to hire up but are losing people at a very fast rate. We’re hiring them as fast as we’re losing them.”

Testifying to a skeptical House Appropriations subcommittee whose chairman called Wheeler’s defense of the cuts “embarrassing,” the EPA administrator said the fiscal 2020 budget “ensures that the agency can continue the president’s bold agenda and the tremendous progress we have made over the past two years. The U.S. is a global leader with respect to clean air and access to safe drinking water, and we are cleaning up contaminated lands at the fastest pace in over a decade.”

He added: “At the same time, EPA has supported the president’s record economic gains by finalizing 38 deregulatory actions and saving Americans more than $3 billion in regulatory costs. We have an additional 39 actions in development projected to save billions more.”

EPA is getting “back to its core mission,” Wheeler said, “trying to work cooperatively with the regulated community, and trying to be very creative with the budget to tighten our belts.”

But Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., argued that “all EPA offices have lost engineers and scientists—in Region 5 alone they’ve lost 120 since 2018 due to attrition.” The EPA still hasn’t spent $3 million from 2018 to replace them, he added. “Why not?” 

Wheeler said, “We are trying, but face some serious workforce challenges,” noting that 40 percent of EPA’s workforce is retirement-eligible, and that many Millennials, in contrast with longtime EPA employees accustomed to a 30-40 year career, switch jobs after three-four years.

“I do take workforce issues seriously [and] we’re at a critical juncture at the agency,” Wheeler added, citing his own experience as a Capitol Hill staffer working to keep technical expertise intact at the Nuclear Regulatory Agency.

A new human resources director has been on the job just a month, Wheeler said, noting that he took the unusual step of interviewing the candidate personally. “We have about 10 people who're about to reach their 50-year milestone next year, and I’ve told them they have to stay get recognized,” Wheeler said with a smile. “I’m happy to work” with Congress on the challenge, he said, promising to give Quigley details such as numbers of candidates interviewed.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., noted that following employee buyout offers in 2016, staff levels continued to decline despite steady funding levels. “Why?” she asked, decrying “understaffing and misguided priorities. EPA can’t shrink any more while still fulfilling its mission of public health.” In the past two years, Congress “rejected these disastrous personnel cuts on a bipartisan basis, and I imagine that’s what will happen this year,” McCollum said.

She received backing from ranking member Rep. David Joyce, R-Pa., who called the proposed cuts disproportionate and commended President Trump for his recent reversal on the original budget’s plan to cut $270 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Wheeler said he is working with the Office of Management and Budget on where to find the new funds.

Trump’s about-face was also noted by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. With Democrats in charge, Republicans think “EPA wants to control the world,” but when Republicans are in charge, Democrats “think Republicans don’t care about the environment,” Simpson said. “EPA will be the most beat-up agency in the federal government.”

Full committee Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., asked Wheeler directly, “Why is the Trump administration steering our country in the wrong direction” on issues such as climate change and air and water quality? “It’s pretty obvious these cuts will result in dirtier air and weakened public health,” she said.

Lowey zeroed in on a proposed 45 percent cut in EPA’s Office of Air Quality and Radiation, which would remove 27 percent of staff. She also said that during the Trump EPA’s recent recasting of auto fuel-efficiency standards, the career staff’s technical comments on a draft rule “were ignored.”

Wheeler disagreed, saying he sat down with career staff in Ann Arbor, Mich., “for two-three hours on a Friday afternoon. I can assure you that career staff are working hand-in-hand” with Transportation Department officials, meeting several times a week. “Our final rule will have the full input of technical staff,” he said

As a previous coal industry lobbyist, Wheeler was challenged on possible favoritism toward his past contacts. “I take recusals very seriously,” he said. He does not meet with former clients, but is allowed to work on “rules of general applicability” and has consulted with career ethics officials.

Wheeler also defended his reorganization of a scientific advisory board, which Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., described as replacing “all seven members” with substitutes, “none with expertise on public lands.”

Wheeler said he was aiming for a “good balance” and geographical diversity while streamlining the advisory process.

He also rejected McCollum’s suggestion that EPA career employees working with the Minnesota state pollution control body were prevented from creating a written record of their recommendations. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I have encouraged them to work cooperatively with states, and instead of letters going back and forth, to sit down face to face.”

Wheeler did promise to be more timely in his responses to Congress. But he was unapologetic in his vision for a leaner EPA much transformed from its role under previous administrations. “We want the public to know that when they encounter environmental threats, we will address them head on,” he said. “And we want the world to know, that when they encounter environmental threats, we are ready to help. This is the type of leadership that gives confidence to the public, certainty to the regulated community, and reassurance to our allies around the globe.”