Editorial: Youngkin’s toxic pick

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  • Glenn Youngkin
    American businessman and politician
  • Andrew R. Wheeler
    15th Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

In building his cabinet in recent weeks, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has tapped some impressive individuals willing to serve the commonwealth.

They include former state Attorney General Richard Cullen, a Richmond insider who will help the new administration find its footing, experienced business executives to advance the new governor’s economic policy goals, and Norfolk’s Shep Miller, chosen to lead the Department of Transportation so critical to this region.

Then there’s Youngkin’s selection of Andrew Wheeler to lead the Department of Natural and Historic Resources.

Wheeler previously served as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump administration, but it’s what he did with that power that makes him unacceptable for Virginia.

Under Wheeler’s direction, the EPA betrayed its mission to ensure that Americans enjoy clean air, water and soil, that regulations to protect those resources are driven by science and judiciously enforced, and that human and environmental health take precedence in decision making.

Instead, his EPA unabashedly served as a subsidiary of business interests, repeatedly favoring the interests of Wall Street over those of Main Street.

Wheeler’s EPA moved to freeze the implementation of stricter vehicle emissions standards that would make cars more fuel efficient and reduce carbon dioxide contributing to global warming, though EPA staff found doing so wouldn’t make cars or gas more affordable.

In his first act as EPA administrator, Wheeler weakened the rules regarding disposal of coal ash, the hazardous waste produced by coal-fired power plants that can seep into aquifers and contaminate drinking water. That would have been terrible for Virginia communities were it not for stricter regulations approved by the General Assembly in 2019, affecting sites in Chesapeake and Prince William, Chesterfield and Fluvanna counties.

And Wheeler’s EPA rolled back provisions of the Clean Water Act, a gift to massive agricultural operations and oil and gas companies. That limited protections for waterways and narrowed the options of Native American tribes seeking to prevent the use of their land for pipeline construction, even when those projects threaten drinking water supplies.

The governor-elect apparently believes that’s the sort of steward Virginia needs for its natural resources, fragile ecosystems and critical waterways. For Hampton Roads, where so much of the economy depends on working the land and water, or enjoying our picturesque environment, this appointment is deeply worrisome.

DNHR oversees the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which is critical to commercial fishing and oyster operations, and integral to Chesapeake Bay clean-up efforts. And it oversees the Department of Environmental Quality, which ensures the safety of drinking water and has a hand in fighting bay pollution.

Say this about Wheeler: In testimony before Congress, he said, “I believe that man has an impact on the climate.” The lowest possible bar to clear, we know, but it’s a step ahead of Youngkin, who said at a Norfolk State University gubernatorial forum last year, “I don’t know what’s responsible for climate change, in all candor. I’m a pretty smart guy, but I’m not that smart.”

But it’s one thing to believe that humans affect the climate — a fact backed by mountains of evidence — and quite another to use thoughtful regulation to limit that impact and protect threatened coastal communities such as those in Hampton Roads.

Wheeler has acknowledged humans’ effect on the climate, but casts doubt about its scope. As EPA administrator, he sidelined scientists whose work reflected the scientific evidence that only a sharp reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gases can spare the world from a point of no return on global warming.

Hampton Roads cannot afford short-sighted leadership for its future. It cannot abide by those who have little concern for its air, water and soil. And it should not accept those who insist that economic needs trump all others.

There are plenty of administration posts that give voice to business interests and Youngkin would be wrong to turn DNHR into another. The governor-elect should find someone serious about this important work. Andrew Wheeler is not that person.

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