by former Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy
Believe it or not, there are still issues about which Virginia lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree. One of those issues is protecting our families and communities from toxic pollutants like coal ash. A group of Republican and Democratic legislators worked tirelessly for years together to pass a 2019 bill that would finally compel Dominion Energy to clean up toxic coal ash facilities that expose children to harmful pollutants and contaminate local water sources. This bipartisan group came together because we all knew that the health and safety of Virginia’s families and the future of children across the Commonwealth depended on our cooperation. That’s why the news that Gov. Youngkin had tapped former coal and chemical industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as Virginia’s top environmental official felt like a gut punch. Thankfully, the state Senate recently voted to reject Wheeler’s nomination. However, it’s important to not let up now.
As others have pointed out, as Secretary of Natural Resources, Wheeler would be in charge of managing the Commonwealth’s air, water, and land. Yet, while heading the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Trump Administration, Wheeler directed at least 50 significant environmental and public health rollbacks. In fact, the very first rule Wheeler signed at the EPA gutted public health protections from the toxic contaminants like lead and arsenic often found in coal ash ponds.
This dangerous rollback was also the top priority of Wheeler’s former, and most lucrative, lobbying client Bob Murray, the late CEO of Murray Energy, a coal company whose practices were so unsafe that a tragic 2007 collapse at one of the Murray mines tragically killed several miners and rescue workers. Sadly, this was just the first example of Wheeler using the EPA, an agency created by Republican President Richard Nixon, as a vehicle to prioritize the corporate bottom line of his former lobbying clients like Murray Energy rather than as a powerful institution intended to protect people and our natural resources from dangerous pollution and destruction. Wheeler is no environmental steward. He is a code-red public health threat.
The instant and passionate backlash to Gov. Youngkin’s nomination proves just how serious a threat an Andrew Wheeler confirmation poses to Virginia. We must keep up the pressure to ensure he is not confirmed. In fact, more than 150 former EPA employees sent a letter to the Virginia Senate urging lawmakers to oppose Wheeler’s nomination. If confirmed, Wheeler would put Virginia families at risk. This is corruption at its worst and Virginia families will pay the price. The health and safety of Virginia’s children is not a game.
This issue is personal to me and my community. I can walk to Possum Point, one of Virginia’s largest coal ash facilities, from my home with my husband and our 4-year-old twins. As a Virginia House Delegate, I led a successful bipartisan campaign to pass a bill requiring that Dominion Energy clean up its toxic coal ash without passing all of the costs to Virginians. No parent should worry that there is poison on their children’s playground or lead, arsenic and mercury in their drinking water. As a candidate, Gov. Youngkin spoke with passion about the future of our children across this Commonwealth of Virginia. To prove that he truly cares about all children, the Governor must withdraw the nomination of Andrew Wheeler as Virginia’s top environmental official immediately. A man with a history of prioritizing corporate polluters at the expense of our children’s health should be nowhere near the honorable job of managing Virginia’s air, water, and land. We can’t let up.