(CNN)EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said access to clean drinking water worldwide is "the biggest environmental threat," while climate change threats are "50 to 75 years out" in an interview with CBS on Wednesday.
EPA head says clean-water access is 'biggest environmental threat' -- despite regulation rollbacks
While speaking at the Wilson Center later that day, Wheeler said he has become frustrated with the "current dialogue around environmental issues" because water issues often "take a back seat."
"Up to 2.5 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water and, as a result, proper sanitation. This fact leads to anywhere from 1 to 3 million deaths every year," he said in his remarks at the Wilson Center.
Wheeler pledged to "do more to address these issues" and said he believes the administration can focus on the clean water crisis "while still addressing other challenges that loom on the horizon."
While Wheeler's speech focused on American interventions in countries around the world to improve water conditions, the Trump administration over the past two years has rolled back EPA regulations that environmental advocates say protected US access to clean and safe drinking water.
"Administrator Wheeler is not even getting his own house in order to protect people in the US," the Sierra Club's deputy legislative director, Dalal Aboulhosn, told CNN.
Wheeler's speech focused on using American resources and expertise to help solve the global water crisis. He highlighted the US' first Global Water Strategy, published in 2017, and discussed American efforts to help countries around the world improve waste management and recycling practices.
"We are elevating this work to address global water security to a new level under President Trump," he said.
In the past few months, the EPA announced two significant policy changes that weaken regulatory protections for water in the US, according to Aboulhosn. In December, Wheeler changed the definition of waters that are protected under the Clean Water Act, ultimately putting fewer waterways under federal protection. This reversed a definition established during the Obama administration.
Environmental groups said the new definition protects fewer small waterways and that could result in more pollution and put people at risk. The policy change was favored by manufacturers and farmers. Critics of then-President Barack Obama's 2015 rule complained that his policy restricted how they could use their land and hurt their business.
In February, Wheeler announced a new plan for regulating nonstick PFAS chemicals in water, saying the agency would develop and set a limit for two of the chemicals. During the announcement, he said he believes the agency's 70 part per trillion health advisory level for the chemicals is "a safe level for drinking water."
The 70 part per trillion level is seven to 10 times higher than is considered safe by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services. Several states have set lower levels or are considering lower levels.
The water supplies for nearly 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group.
"There are all these threads that they are just pulling that will make our waters less safe and less reliable," Aboulhosn said. "It's sad and ironic that he goes on this interview to talk about the world crisis that he's not addressing for safe and reliable drinking water."
The EPA declined to comment on the record for this story.
In the agency's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it proposed cutting $410 million from programs that protect major bodies of water in the US including the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and the Great Lakes, according to the Sierra Club.