Acting EPA head says he's 'proud' of his work for coal industry

Andrew Wheeler makes first public appearance

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EPA building in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - In his first public appearance since taking over as the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler told employees gathered at agency headquarters Wednesday that he was "proud" of his work as a coal industry lobbyist.

Wheeler, who took the agency's helm on Monday, spoke to employees and the media in an open forum, but made no mention of the ethical cloud that led to the resignation of his predecessor, Scott Pruitt. He cast himself as interested in listening to agency scientists and staffers, a gripe many had voiced about Pruitt.

But while the agency leadership has changed, Wheeler said he will continue President Donald Trump's agenda, including cutting regulations and streamlining agency practices.

Wheeler noted his career began at the EPA under the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, and he spoke passionately about his lobbying work, where his clients included the coal company Murray Energy.

"I think it has been used by some people in a derogatory manner, but I'm actually proud of the work I did," he said, noting that included advocating for miner health and pension benefits.

"My grandfather was a coal miner during the Depression," Wheeler said. "My grandmother raised her children in the coal camps of West Virginia. In fact, I still have some of the company script that she used to buy food in the company store."

Wheeler told EPA staffers that at a time of transition at the agency, he would work to minimize their "stress," and praised them as "some of the most dedicated of all the federal career employees in the federal government."

"I value your input and feedback and you will find me and my team ready to listen. To the employees, I want you to know that I will start with the presumption that you are performing your work as well as it can be done," Wheeler said. "My instinct will be to defend your work and I will seek the facts from you before drawing conclusions."

Environmental groups say the EPA's policies under Pruitt and now Wheeler are harmful to health and the environment.

"Wheeler looks a lot like Pruitt 2.0, and no one should have confidence that he will do what is necessary to keep our families safe from the corporate polluters who signed his paychecks just months ago," said Maura Cowley of the Sierra Club.

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