Throughout my career, I have focused on ensuring families and children, both here in Maine and across our nation, are as healthy as possible. That is why I must speak out against a new public health threat facing Maine: the prospect of Andrew Wheeler being confirmed to serve as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator.
What Mainers need to know is that Wheeler – who has served as Acting EPA Administrator since the previous EPA chief Scott Pruitt resigned in disgrace last summer – is a former coal industry lobbyist who represented some of the largest polluters in the country and has continuously worked to gut health and climate protections that help keep Maine’s air safe to breathe. If Wheeler is confirmed to permanently serve as EPA administrator, the health of Maine communities will suffer.
As America’s tailpipe, Maine faces unique public health threats from air pollution. According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, our state suffers from some of the highest asthma rates in the country. Recent data shows that over 11 percent of Maine adults suffer from asthma, compared to nearly 9 percent for all American adults. Similarly, children in Maine have asthma rates of roughly 9 percent compared to roughly 8 percent nationally.
Yet instead of strengthening pollution safeguards that would benefit Mainers who suffer from asthma, Acting Administrator Wheeler has consistently put the needs of polluters and his past clients ahead of our families. The truth is that Wheeler’s past as an industry lobbyist calls into question his impartiality, and the actions he’s taken since becoming acting administrator are concerning. He’s moved to gut clean air standards on dangerous air pollution released from power plants; rolled back America’s clean car standards; and has allowed Americans everywhere to be exposed to more deadly chemicals.
If that wasn’t bad enough, just before closing the EPA’s doors due to what is now the longest government shutdown in American history, Acting Administrator Wheeler used the agency’s last available resources to begin to undermine long-standing protections against mercury pollution at the request of the coal industry and at the expense of children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable populations. The move to gut these standards, which was made easier by a circuit court decision from now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, is reckless and harmful. We deserve an EPA administrator who will prioritize the agency’s mission of protecting public health and enforcing laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
As the Senate considers Wheeler’s nomination, Senator Susan Collins must demand that Wheeler take steps to protect our economy, our environment, our national security, and our health. Specifically, Wheeler should provide commitments that he will: withdraw his proposal to limit state authority to set stronger clean car standards; stop his attempt to undermine mercury pollution standards that reduce dangerous toxins from power plants; drop his reported obstruction of the Kigali Agreement, which is an international agreement to phase down hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigerants and aerosols; and finalize the ban on methylene chloride, a carcinogen in paint strippers that turns to carbon monoxide in the body and can threaten consumers with rapid asphyxiation and heart attacks.
When it comes to protecting our health and economy, there’s no reason for Wheeler to hesitate to make these commitments as he asks for Senator Collins’ support when his nomination is put to a vote. The EPA should be led by someone who is committed to protecting our health and the environment, not by a former coal lobbyist who is pursuing a toxic agenda that will harm the health and safety of communities across our state.
Senator Collins was the sole Republican to vote against confirming Wheeler’s predecessor, Scott Pruitt. Sadly, however, she supported Wheeler’s prior nomination as Deputy EPA Administrator. We are watching closely to see if she once again speaks up for the health of Mainers, or if she stands idly by and allows the federal agency most responsible for protecting our health and environment to be run by an industry lobbyist.
Tony Owens is an emergency room doctor at Maine Medical Center who has seen far too many children fight to breathe
This op-ed was originally posted in the Portland Press Herald