Scott Pruitt is out as the embattled chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but construction sector participants and observers do not expect a departure from his policies under interim EPA head and Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a one-time coal industry lobbyist with strong conservative ties.
Environmentalists vow a continued fight against what they see as a Trump Administration rollback of environment and public health protections.
“We don’t expect EPA and administration policies to skip a beat,” Jimmy Christianson, vice president of government affairs for the Associated General Contractors (AGC), tells ENR.
In a July 6 interview with the Washington Post, Wheeler said Pruitt was working to implement President Donald Trump’s agenda and that, as successor, he will try to do the same. “But there will probably be a little bit of difference” in how the two discuss key issues, he said.
Some see Wheeler’s appointment as reducing the public focus on environmental issues. “This move will likely return it to its sleepy place in public opinion,” Frank Maisano, senior principal of the Policy Resolution Group, said in an email.
Since being confirmed to the EPA job in February 2017, Pruitt systematically dismantled regulations, gutting a total of 23—including two that were key to the construction industry, Christianson says.
Trump on July 5 accepted the scandal-plagued official’s resignation and named his Senate-approved deputy as replacement. “I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda,” a Trump tweet said. He told the White House press pool that Wheeler “was with us on the campaign. He is a very environmental person.” It was not immediately clear if Wheeler would be nominated for the permanent post, or who other candidates might be.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), for whom Wheeler worked for 14 years as senior counsel to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he has the experience to be a strong EPA leader and continue Pruitt’s deregulatory work. Wheeler’s Capitol Hill experience and his career as a coal lobbyist have led observers to consider him a more effective bureaucratic operator than Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, in dismantling regulations.
An AGC priority is to repeal and replace the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. rule that expanded the types of waters that fall under federal control.
Pruitt and the U.S. Army on June 29 proposed “to permanently and completely repeal the 2015 rule and keep the pre-2015 regulatory framework in place,” the ex-administrator said. He also had been reorganizing EPA to shorten permit approval times, another AGC priority, “to get projects through more quickly,” Christianson noted.
Before leaving, Pruitt moved to limit federal veto authority over permits in wetlands. He directed EPA’s water office to begin rulemaking within six months to remove its authority to deny a federal wetlands permit on a proposed activity or retroactively suspend or withdraw an already issued permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
Altering the culture and long ingrained practices at EPA could take President Trump’s entire term, says Christianson. “Changes in [Washington] don’t happen overnight.” AGC does not expect revisions to the WOTUS rule until 2019.
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association also expects EPA to stay on the same path. “We can’t predict, but we don’t see much change. There is no fear of anything being delayed,” says Nick Goldstein, vice president of regulatory and legal affairs.
The expected continuation of Pruitt’s agenda is not lost on the environmental community.
Wheeler “is equally unqualified to serve as the nation’s chief environmental steward,” Ana Unruh Cohen, a Natural Resources Defense Council managing director, said in a statement. It has vowed to fight Wheeler’s “disdain” for EPA’s mission.
Harvard University’s Environmental Law Program is compiling a list of Trump Administration EPA actions that it contends will generate more pollution, dismantle mandated agency protections, curtail high-quality science and undermine the public’s right to hold the agency accountable when it fails to meet obligations. “Don’t be confused—Scott Pruitt is not really gone,” program Executive Director Joseph Goffman tweeted.
Pruitt did take steps to expedite environmental cleanups, such as new guidance for contentious Superfund waste cleanups that “focused on improving the … process,” says Reynolds Renshaw, a cleanup manager for Pittsburgh consultant EHS Support, adding that some corporate clients benefited from changes like accelerated schedules.
Pruitt also said in May the agency would determine how best to support the cleanup of PFAS chemicals, those that are widely used for firefighting, waterproofing and stain prevention.