Butler County native Andrew Wheeler, now the deputy administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said cleaning up Superfund sites — including one locally — is among the federal agency’s top priorities.
“A lot of these sites have just been languishing for years where no real progress is being made,” Wheeler, a native of Fairfield, told the Journal-News during an interview earlier this month in Washington, D.C.
“We’re trying to speed up the cleanup. If we get these sites cleaned up, that then removes environmental issues from the surrounding communities. It also allows the property to be reclaimed and reused,” he said.
One of those sites identified by the EPA is the former Peters Cartridge Factory in Kings Mills in Warren County.
Copper, lead and mercury have contaminated the soil around the former factory located along the Little Miami River.
A new microbrewery is the first commercial tenant to sign on for the long-awaited redevelopment of the former factory that dates back to the Civil War and produced munitions into World War II.
The redevelopment, which follows an environmental cleanup, is still subject to EPA approval, according to one of the developers of the project.
Wheeler, who graduated in 1983 from Fairfield High School, has been sharply criticized by environmentalists such as the Sierra Club because he had been an energy lobbyist.
“Yes, I represented a coal company, but I also represented a cheese company,” he said of his years as a lobbyist.
Senators approved Wheeler’s nomination in an April vote of 53-to-45 despite complaints from Democrats that Wheeler helped lead a fight by the coal industry to block regulations that protect Americans’ health and begin to address climate change.
Until his nomination by President Donald Trump last fall, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist with a client list that included Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies. He accompanied Murray CEO Robert “Bob” Murray during a series of closed-door meetings to lobby the Trump administration to kill environmental regulations affecting coal mines.
Wheeler, who said his grandfather was a coal miner during the Great Depression, defended his lobbying work, saying it was for miners’ health care and pension bills sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.
“We were successful on the healthcare one about a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, I left before they got the pension side,” he said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was one of the 45 who voted against Wheeler’s confirmation, saying he is “a director wannabe.”
Current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing about a dozen investigations into his spending and management decisions at the agency. If he is forced to step down, Wheeler would replace him until the Trump administration names a new administrator.
“He’s done the bidding of the oil industry at the expense of children who are exposed to all kinds of chemical and all kinds of contaminated air in this country,” Brown said Wednesday of Wheeler.
Republicans said Wheeler, 53, is well-qualified to lead the agency, having worked at the EPA early in his career and serving as Republican staff chief of the Senate Environment Committee before becoming a lobbyist nine years ago.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate environment panel, said Wheeler has demonstrated his commitment to sound environmental policies and has “exemplified excellence in his professional endeavors,” both in government and in the private sector.