By Adam Beitman and Liz Perera, Sierra Club
Scott Pruitt, or as many know him, Polluting Pruitt, can’t seem to catch a break. Ever since Donald Trump named him EPA administrator, he’s worked doggedly to dismantle the very agency he’s been tasked to lead, but for reasons that seem to vex him and his spokesperson, the American public has revolted against him. Why? Well, for the past few weeks at least, it’s because his policies are undermining the long and short term recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Heckuva job, Pruitt.
It’s hard to put it more succinctly than Thomas Friedman in the NYT: “Trump has recently fired various knuckle-headed aides whose behavior was causing him short-term embarrassment. The person he needs to fire is Scott Pruitt. Pruitt is going to cause Trump long-term embarrassment.”
What’s Pruitt screwing up you ask? Let’s count the ways.
1. PRUITT ENDANGERED FIRST RESPONDERS IN HOUSTON BY DELAYING A TOXICS DISCLOSURE SAFEGUARD
Harvey’s destruction and flooding caused the Arkema chemical manufacturing and storage facility outside of Houston to explode and burst into flames. Fifteen sheriff’s deputies were taken to the hospital for inhaling the irritants and a mandatory evacuation is in place for all residents living within 1.5 miles of the chemical plant in southeast Texas.”
Remarkably, Pruitt falsely claimed that there were “no concentrations of concern for toxic materials” from the plant. Clearly, Pruitt was trying to cover up the fact that he had endangered first responders by delaying a safeguard that could have required greater disclosure of the types of hazardous chemicals at sites like Arkema. EPA’s Risk Management Plan rule was specifically designed to protect first responders and help them in responses to these types of disasters.
2. PRUITT IS CLOSING AN EPA LAB IN HOUSTON THAT’S CRUCIAL FOR RECOVERY
The Houston Chronicle reported that Pruitt is set to close EPA’s Region 6 Environmental Services Laboratory. The majority of the lab’s work has been concentrated on the dozens of Superfund sites in the region, 13 of which flooded and released toxic chemicals when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. The lab has doubled in an important role as a staging area for EPA staff. The closure is slated for 2020, far earlier than when the recovery from Hurricane Harvey is expected to conclude.
As Texas communities are trying to assess the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey and figure out a way forward as we rebuild, Scott Pruitt is trying to close down the offices that help evaluate risk and protect them by testing water and soil samples. Later reports indicate that Pruitt may be feeling the heat of public exposure and may be considering keeping the facility open.
3. PRUITT IS FAILING TO INFORM THE PUBLIC OF UNLIMITED POLLUTION HE’S PERMITTING IN HARVEY-AFFECTED COMMUNITIES
The Texas Tribune reports, meanwhile, that Scott Pruitt’s EPA is refusing to publicly share the levels of Benzene pollution throughout the region affected by Hurricane Harvey, while his agency continues to waive environmental safeguards. There are 449 chemical and toxic facilities and refineries in the 25 counties most affected by the hurricane, and residents have personally smelled and detected dangerous concentrations of the pollutant. Put differently, Pruitt is putting people who have just lost their homes and loved ones in even greater harm while refusing to tell them what dangers they face. In the wake of Harvey, Donald Trump promised the people of Texas he was with them. Pruitt is making it clear that was just more pollution dumped in their air.
4. PRUITT’S ATTACKS ON EPA STAFF ARE REDUCING AGENCY EFFECTIVENESS
Another Pruitt pet project is destroying the agency he runs from within. The Washington Post reports that Pruitt has been successful in that mission thus far, gradually whittling away the most experienced agency staff to levels not seen since the 80s through a combination of an arbitrary across the board hiring freeze and buyouts: “Last week, 362 employees accepted a voluntary buyout, according to one agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the figures have not been publicly announced. On Aug. 31, a dozen employees retired. Another 33 employees are retiring at the end of September, and 45 additional employees are considering retirement offers.”
5. EPA’S INSPECTOR GENERAL TO PRUITT: YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH STAFF TO MANAGE SUPERFUND SITES EFFECTIVELY
Despite Pruitt’s claim that superfund site remediation is a top priority for him, the EPA Inspector General just made any such notion look absurd. The EPA Inspector General reports, as relayed by the AP, that “Cleanups at some U.S. hazardous waste sites have stopped or slowed down because the Environmental Protection Agency does not manage its Superfund staff effectively to match its workload.” Pruitt’s outrageous budget and staffing cuts are obviously going to do nothing to help the problem; both will clearly make it much worse. Staffing cuts are already eliminating important institutional knowledge at the Agency, as well as critical capacity. According to the IG, right now “More than half of EPA’s regions reported they could not start work or had to stop work on cleanup projects because of a lack of staff, according to the findings.”
6. PRUITT IS USING ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME INVESTIGATORS AS BODYGUARDS
There is one area where Pruitt does not want to skimp at all. Pruitt, like other members of Trump’s cabinet, is using the American taxpayer’s dime to fund completely unprecedented and costly benefits. For Pruitt, it’s hefty, round-the-clock security protection that diverts staff from fullulling their hired job: environmental enforcement.
Bloomberg BNA first reported that Pruitt is failing to increase environmental crimes enforcement staff at the same time that he is hiring more special agents to protect himself around the clock on his travels back home to Oklahoma every week: “The EPA has 151 federal law enforcement officials working environmental crimes cases—49 short of the number set by a 1990 law—and there is no indication their ranks will increase. The only uptick in the number of special agents are those who protect Administrator Scott Pruitt around-the-clock, including when he goes home on weekends to Tulsa, Okla.”
According to a former special agent interviewed by the Washington Post, “These guys signed on to work on complex environmental cases, not to be an executive protection detail … It’s not only not what they want to do, it’s not what they were trained and paid to do.”
7. PRUITT’S DEPUTIES: EITHER NON-EXISTENT OR POLLUTER FANATICS WHO DESPISE EPA’S MISSION
It’s hard to say right now whether it’s a blessing or a curse that EPA lacks so many senior political appointees. Many key positions are vacant, leaving a leadership vacuum that is impairing recovery efforts. At the same time, Pruitt’s nominees and allies are so universally objectionable and opposed to the mission of the agency that it may even be fortunate that they are not all yet in place. Case in point: Pruitt wants Andrew Wheeler, who is literally a coal industry lobbyist, to be his top deputy. Wheeler has represented Big Coal for almost a decade, including in lawsuits challenging the EPA. He is a friend to polluters, not to American families that rely on clean air and clean water. Wheeler has worked for one of the most notorious climate deniers and opponents of environmental protection, Sen. Inhofe, which means he’ll be at home in Pruitt’s agency as it moves forward with plans to ignore the climate crisis and gut health protections. Wheeler has also previously suggested to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that they revisit a 2009 scientific finding that carbon pollution poses a threat to public health.
But it’s not only Wheeler that would threaten EPA’s core duties. Pruitt also wants Bill Wehrum to lead the air office at EPA–the same Bill Wehrum who has said that the Clean Air Act shouldn’t apply to the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change and superstorms like Hurricane Harvey. Wehrum was rejected by the Senate once before for his dangerous positions, and like many of Trump’s nominees has an astounding number of conflicts of interest given that he has regularly represented corporate polluters in their efforts to undermine clean air safeguards.
8. PRUITT’S DEFENSIVE ATTACK ON AP’S HARVEY JOURNALISM EXPOSED HIS HOLLOW CORE
After the Associated Press correctly reported that, under Pruitt, the EPA had not been able to survey numerous toxic sites that had been flooded in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Agency’s press staff released an unprecedented press release falsely attacking one of that outlets reporters. More specifically, Pruitt’s press staff attacked a co-reporter of the piece for writing from Washington, D.C., while blatantly ignoring the obvious documentary photography that had been gathered by the wire service’s reporters on the ground in Texas. The entire incident raises deeply serious concerns when an agency charged with protecting our health is literally willing to tell you to “ignore your lying eyes.”
The AP later reported that, though EPA had released no public information to this effect and apparently ignored or disregarded reports, “one of Houston’s dirtiest Superfund toxic waste sites” had flooded and there was, in fact, evidence of toxic spills. As reported by AP: “The reported spills, which have been not publicly detailed, occurred at U.S. Oil Recovery, a former petroleum industry waste processing plant contaminated with a dangerous brew of cancer-causing chemicals. On Aug. 29, the day Harvey’s remnants cleared out, a county pollution control team sent photos to the EPA of three large concrete tanks flooded with water.”
Attacking reporters appears to be par for the course for Pruitt’s EPA. In August, Pruitt’s spokesperson threatened to call the police on reporters for merely trying to do their jobs.
9. PRUITT’S CAMPAIGN AGAINST CLIMATE REALITY IS UNDERMINING PREPAREDNESS FOR FUTURE STORMS
Just as Hurricane Irma was about to hit Florida, an EPA spokesperson confirmed that Scott Pruitt had eliminated the EPA’s climate adaptation office, as reported by Politico Pro. That office was designed to focus on preparing for sea-level rise and extreme weather. Additionally, an internal memo confirmed that the office of Environmental Justice will be dramatically reorganized and moved into the Office of Policy. Previously, Pruitt and Trump pushed to eliminate all funding for the EPA’s Environmental Justice office.
This was an outrageous, offensively bad decision at exactly the wrong time and Pruitt should be ashamed of himself. Pruitt’s job is to help protect the people in our communities who need help, not pull the wool over their eyes and bury his head in the sand.
These decisions came amid Pruitt’s absurd comments to CNN that the time to discuss “the cause and effect of these storms … [is] not now” and that bringing up climate change is “very insensitive,” for which he was widely panned in the press.
And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that Pruitt has been dismantling the previous administration’s signature climate policies one by one, as well as leading the charge against the Paris agreement.
10. REJECTING PRUITT, BOTH MIAMI AND HOUSTON THINK “NOW” IS A GREAT TIME TO DISCUSS CLIMATE CHANGE
When Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw from the Paris agreement, he told the world that he was elected to represent “Pittsburgh, not Paris.” He swiftly received an unprecedented rebuke from leaders throughout the U.S., including the Mayor of Pittsburgh, who affirmed his strong commitment to the Paris accord and went even further to declare that Pittsburgh would power itself with 100% clean energy.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, there have been pointed calls for climate action in both Houston and Miami.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado found Pruitt’s refusal to discuss climate change absurd, telling CNN, “This is the time to talk about climate change… If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is.”
And the Houston Chronicle called for an open discussion of the climate crisis in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, imploring as follows in a dramatic, implicit rebuke to Pruitt: “Scientists have warned that man-made climate change could bring bizarre and unprecedented events. Harvey probably belongs on that list. If Houston is going to be serious about keeping our city safe from Mother Nature, then we have to make global warming part of the discussion.”
It’s no surprise that Pruitt has been having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. Perhaps, instead of spending the bulk of his time in office attacking an international climate agreement not even within his portfolio, in between his constant self-serving Twitter photo-ops, Pruitt should have spent his time actually administering his agency and preparing for, and helping communities recover from the kind of environmental disasters which accompany major storms like Harvey and Irma.
“HECKUVA JOB, PRUITT”