So ignorant of government was Donald Trump that during his campaign he promised to “get rid” of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form.”
When, as president, he was informed by staff that this was impossible he did the closest thing. He hired Oklahoma’s attorney general, Edward Scott Pruitt, as his EPA administrator, instructing him to emasculate the agency. Pruitt is succeeding.
Here’s what EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, has to say about Pruitt: “We’ve spent 40 years putting together an apparatus to protect public health and the environment from a lot of different pollutants. He’s pulling that whole apparatus down.”
In an exhaustive search for commentary on Pruitt’s appointment and mission I found copious condemnation from the environmental community but precious little from anglers and hunters.
I did appreciate and circulate the Hatch Magazine piece by Todd Tanner whose prose is so terse and tight that he was able to tell the entire story in his title: “Pruitt Sells Out Sportsmen”. Kirk Deeter also hit a homerun in Angling Trade.
I’m sure there were other fine pieces I missed. But, on the whole, sportsmen appear singularly unmoved and unconcerned about Pruitt’s assault on America’s air, water, fish and wildlife.
They’ve responded quite differently to the administration’s planned fire sale of public lands. The leader of that effort, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has learned to his chagrin that it’s easy to get sportsmen’s attention with “posted” signs on state and industry land that used to belong to all Americans.
During his stints as an Oklahoma state senator and Oklahoma’s attorney general Pruitt was funded by fossil-fuel polluters to the tune of $300,000. And as AG he sued EPA 14 times, mostly on their behalf but never with success.
One of the first things Pruitt did when he took over as Oklahoma AG was dissolve the office’s Environmental Protection Unit. Later he sent a letter to Obama’s EPA in which he went on and on about how federal regulators had grossly exaggerated the quantity of air pollution issuing from new gas wells in his state.
That three-page harangue drew gushing approbation from Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil-and-gas companies. “Outstanding,” wrote Devon’s chief lobbyist William Whitsitt in a note to Pruitt’s office. “Please pass along Devon’s thanks to Attorney General Pruitt.”
The reason Pruitt’s letter was such a hit with Devon Energy was that it had ghost-written it for him.
As Oklahoma AG, Pruitt set up a private email account to conduct state business and consort with his fellow energy-industry lobbyists. When, during Pruitt’s EPA confirmation, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) inquired if he’d ever conducted state business using personal email accounts, he responded as follows: “I use only my official OAG [Office of the Attorney General] email address and government-issued phone to conduct official business” — a felonious lie, according the The Daily Beast.
Pruitt received the 2017 “Golden Padlock,” presented to the nation’s most “secretive publicly-funded agency or person” by Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The award recognized his dogged and illegal refusal as Oklahoma AG to release emails that later proved he had “closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers to roll back environmental regulations” and his scrubbing from EPA websites of “information about air, water and ground pollution and sources of toxic chemical releases.”
When the Center for Media and Democracy successfully sued AG Pruitt for ignoring nine of its Open-Records-Act requests, the presiding judge rebuked him for “abject failure” to obey state law.
Trump has defined global warming as a hoax hatched by China to cripple the U.S. economy. But Pruitt goes him one better, claiming that global warming isn’t really caused by greenhouse gases belched forth by fossil-fuel polluters and that, anyway, it’s a blessing because “we know humans have most flourished during times of warming trends.” After all, who doesn’t like to be warm?
Not that there haven’t been other misfeasant EPA administrators. Before Pruitt there was Reagan’s Anne Gorsuch, mother of the new Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch. In 1983 The New York Times ran this assessment of her performance: “Anne Gorsuch inherited one of the most efficient and capable agencies in government. She has turned it into an Augean stable, reeking of cynicism, mismanagement and decay.” Gorsuch resigned in disgrace after the henchwoman she’d assigned to impede Superfund enforcement was fined $10,000 and sentenced to six months in the slammer.
George W. Bush’s Stephen Johnson was only marginally better. Under his tenure a little more than half of EPA’s scientists reported political interference in scientific decisions.
At least with Gorsuch and Johnson the agency emerged from their exits relatively unscathed. But Pruitt is in a class by himself. While he can’t deliver on Trump’s promise of “getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency,” he’s causing long-lasting, perhaps irreparable damage.
Herewith, a partial list of his vandalism to date:
- Convincing Trump to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, thereby rendering America (second biggest greenhouse-gas polluter after China) a world pariah and laughingstock.
- Cancelling an EPA directive that the energy industry provide information on methane pollution from fossil-fuel drilling.
- Repealing the “Clean Power Plan” designed to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution from power plants, and removing information on it from agency websites.
- Dumping EPA’s 23-year-old policy of limiting some 200 industrial pollutants, including such poisons as mercury, lead and arsenic.
- Scrapping restrictions on disposal of coal ash which contains toxic and carcinogenic heavy metals and which compromises water quality.
- Delaying an Obama-era requirement that power plants provide inventories of in-house chemicals so that, in the event of accidents, first responders can safely and properly take action.
- Refusing to enforce a rule limiting smog-producing ozone.
- Overruling a recommendation by EPA’s scientists to ban the dangerous, nerve-destroying pesticide chlorpyrifos.
- Slashing enforcement cases against polluters by 44 percent.
- Slashing polluter penalties by 50 percent.
- Reassigning pollution-enforcement officers to his personal security detail.
- Recommending a funding reduction for the Office of Criminal Enforcement of almost 60 percent.
- Recommending an overall agency funding reduction of almost a third.
- Politicizing grant making by assigning former Trump campaign worker John Konkus to vet grant applications and remove all references to climate change.
- Dismissing 800 staffers including 200 scientists and importing industry hacks to fill many of the vacancies.
- Playing a key role in convincing Congress and Trump to repeal the Stream Protection Rule.
- Initiating a process to rescind the Waters of the United States Rule (WOTUS).
- Purging scientists from an advisory board which had reviewed the science behind WOTUS and found it sound.
I didn’t fully comprehend the importance of the Stream Protection Rule until SouthWings, a group of volunteer pilots who show journalists the tracks of industry as they exist in reality rather than on glossy promo, flew me over West Virginia, a state with 500 miles of wild brook trout streams.
As far as I could see on all compass points the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau had been sheared off by the largest non-nuclear explosions ever detonated. Bulldozers, draglines, giant drills, trucks and assorted trash festooned the shattered landscape. Sandwiched between mountain stumps were misnamed “holding ponds,” some disgorging toxic coal slurry.
It seemed impossible to me that mountaintop removal (which should be called mountain-range removal) could be any more grotesque. But I was wrong.
While the Stream Protection Rule did nothing to limit mountaintop removal, it had provided some protection for 6,000 miles of streams in Appalachia by requiring coal companies to restore the “physical form, hydrologic function, and ecological function” of nearby water courses after they’d finished blowing up mountains and then to monitor pollution levels.
Thanks in large part to Pruitt, mountaintop removal is even more hurtful than it had been. Today coal companies can conveniently dump their mountain remains into streams.
Now some background on WOTUS. In 2001 the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, Illinois won a Supreme Court battle against the Army Corps of Engineers which had denied its request to convert a so-called “isolated wetland” to a landfill. Somehow it convinced five justices that the wetland was not a “water of the United States.”
There is, of course, no such thing as an “isolated” wetland, stream or pond. Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, plants and even fish (which ride floods and are transported by birds as eggs, fry and adults) trade between waters that only appear isolated to people who don’t get outside much. What’s more, all water, groundwater included, flows downhill, mostly into waters that even indoorsmen wouldn’t perceive as isolated.
The 2001 Supreme Court decision was significant only in its stupidity. The Corps’ authority to protect non-navigable “intrastate” waters (those completely in one state) is provided by the Interstate Commerce Clause which allows feds to regulate activities that affect business across state lines. For convenience the Corps pinned its jurisdiction on commerce related to migratory birds. All the justices did was rule that it couldn’t do this.
There were all manner of other ways to affirm interstate business — commerce relating to angling, for example, or boating, wildlife viewing, ground-water flow … The George W. Bush administration could have used any of these alternatives. Instead it hatched guidance that gave polluters free rein to foul millions of acres of intrastate lakes, ponds and wetlands deemed unnavigable and nonadjacent to or not obviously connected by surface water with rivers, streams or coastal waters.
Then, in 2005, the Supreme Court couldn’t figure out what to do in a case involving John Rapanos, a Michigan shopping-mall developer who had repeatedly defied cease-and-desist orders in his ongoing destruction of wetlands that were “isolated” but adjacent to streams that flowed into a navigable water — Lake St. Clair.
Four justices sided with the Corps’ position that, because pollution follows the law of gravity, the Clean Water Act protects wetlands adjacent to navigable waters. Four other justices agreed with Rapanos’ bizarre notion that the act only protects navigable waters from direct discharge. In other words, it’s fine to foul them via runoff and intermittent tributary. That made as much sense as mandating showers for everyone before entering a public swimming pool while piping the gray water into the pool.
A ninth justice, Anthony Kennedy, opined that in order to qualify for protection a wetland must have a “significant nexus” with a navigable water. With no majority Kennedy’s ruling became primary by court precedent. But no one, Kennedy apparently included, had a clue about what a “significant nexus” was.
The Bush administration could have fixed this by offering a definition in a rule. Instead it published vague and voluminous guidance that left Corps and EPA enforcement agents hopelessly confused and jeopardized millions of additional wetlands and more than two million miles of non-navigable streams as well as navigable waters which collected those streams.
But paralyzing enforcement was the whole idea. Sixty percent of America’s wetlands and streams were suddenly in jurisdictional limbo and vulnerable.
The Clean Water Act says this: “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that there should be no discharges of oil or hazardous substances into or upon the navigable waters of the United States.” It doesn’t say “except by gravity.”
With ardent support from almost 500 organizations advocating fishing, hunting, health, watersheds and religion the Obama administration tried to correct this insanity. But for years clean-water advocates were stuffed by the Farm Bureau, miners, home builders, stockmen, property-rights ideologues, water diverters, and radical right-wing think tanks and blogs.
“The Environmental Protection Agency has come up with a way to execute one of the biggest land grabs by the federal government ever perpetrated on the American public,” shouted Steve Bannon’s Breitbart blog. “On Tuesday, the EPA proposed a change to the Clean Water Act so that the EPA would have the power to regulate temporary wetlands and waterways.”
Finally, in 2015, the Obama team prevailed, finalizing WOTUS. In no way did it change the original Clean Water Act; it merely restored teeth extracted by the previous administration.
That was too much for Pruitt. Under his direction career staffers altered a comprehensive analysis of WOTUS, deleting a section documenting $500 million worth of benefits provided by improvements to fisheries, outfitters and drinking water supplies. Betsy Southerland, who in August resigned in disgust as EPA’s director of science and technology for water, issued this statement to the Los Angeles Times: “We were told to just drop the benefits. They told us verbally, so they wouldn’t have a written record of it.”
Unlike the Stream Protection Rule, the Trump administration can’t just disappear WOTUS; it’s been in place too long. Pruitt now has to initiate a standard rule-making procedure that will include a public-comment period and, without doubt, a barrage of lawsuits — a tortuous process that may take more time than Pruitt and Trump have left.
As Pruitt labors to emasculate EPA he is taking pains to hide his dirty work from the American public, just as he did in Oklahoma. When he hosted a “roundtable” at the University of North Dakota on how to rewrite WOTUS he packed the room with industry poohbahs and political cronies but barred the public. A reporter who lingered was ejected under threat of force.
To evade reporters Pruitt refuses to divulge his travel plans. He is unlawfully ignoring a blizzard of Freedom-of-Information-Act requests. And he is unlawfully preventing internal conversations from being documented, even going to the extreme of having a soundproof communications booth installed in his office at a cost of more than $25,000. This behavior has initiated an investigation by EPA's Inspector General.
Finally, even as Pruitt moves to slash EPA’s budget he squanders agency funds on air travel. For example, he spent $14,400 chartering a plane to Oklahoma so he and his staff could hobnob with Farm Bureau members keen to repeal WOTUS. He spent $1,641 to fly the 200 miles between Washington, D.C. and New York City. And in a single week he spent $36,068 to fly from Cincinnati to New York on a military jet so he could catch a round-trip flight to Rome for $7,003.
Pruitt claims he has to fly first class “for security,” but there is no place on earth more secure than the inside of a U.S. airliner.
What he’s really protecting himself from is richly deserved jeers from fellow passengers who object to his cynical assault on their air, water, fish and wildlife.