It's Time to Fire Scott Pruitt

The EPA administrator is a threat to the environment and our health.

Susan Walsh/AP

What’s in a silver dollar? Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? What’s the purpose of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?

Some questions answer themselves, but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt gets the easiest one completely wrong. He’s made it his job to protect polluters and put the environment at risk

It’s not the agency’s mission that needs changing―it’s the administrator. Scott Pruitt’s got to go

That’s not a position NRDC takes lightly. We’ve disagreed with EPA administrators before. Pruitt, though, is intent on making the agency fail. That’s why we’ve joined with other environmental advocacy groups to call on President Trump to replace Pruitt with someone who’ll protect the people, not the polluters.

President Richard Nixon, a Republican, created the EPA in 1970 after a series of catastrophic environmental disasters made clear we couldn’t rely on industry alone to protect us from the mounting hazards and harm of toxic pollution and ruinous operations. 

Naturally, some of the biggest polluting industries howled, falsely claiming that we couldn’t afford to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink without throttling economic performance. The economy itself has proved them wrong. 

The U.S. economy is 3.7 times larger―after adjusting for inflation―than it was when the EPA was created, while our environment is in vastly better shape, largely thanks to the agency. Still, that stunning record of success hasn’t stopped Pruitt from making a career out of trying to torpedo the EPA and undermine its work on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and other big polluters.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt took the EPA to court 14 times in an effort to tie its hands and free industry to pollute our air and water. For the past 13 months, he’s been shoveling sand in the gears from inside the machine, with efforts to slash the budget, cut the staff, roll back commonsense safeguards mandated by law, silence the voice of the people, and grant polluter profits primacy over the forward march of sound science.

In targeting the EPA, Pruitt is putting our environment and health at risk. He aims to take the country back to 1970, before the government organized itself to protect the American people from toxic pollution and environmental ruin. We’re not going back there with him.

In the omnibus spending bill passed in March, Congress rejected a proposal by Pruitt and Trump to cut the EPA’s budget 31 percent for the current year. Instead, Congress held spending for this year at $8.1 billion, essentially the same as in 2017. 

Now Trump and Pruitt are back, asking to slash funding by $1.9 billion, a 23 percent cut, for the 2019 fiscal year that begins in October. Congress needs to stand firm once again.

The agency had already lost 1,700 people―10 percent of its staff―in the five years before Pruitt took over. His first year in office saw an exodus of more than 700 additional scientists and others. Where Pruitt has staffed up, he’s brought in industry insiders. For instance:

  • Bill Wehrum, a Washington attorney who has represented fossil fuel and chemical companies, now heads the clean air and radiation office.
  • Nancy Beck, who oversees chemical safety and pollution prevention, spent the previous five years as an executive with the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s lobbying unit.
  • Erik Baptist, former senior counsel at the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s lobbying association, is now senior deputy general counsel for the EPA.

Think these people somehow parked their career industry affiliations at the EPA door? Think again.

The additional budget cuts Trump and Pruitt are seeking would hobble the agency’s ability to monitor and enforce compliance with foundational laws Congress passed to protect our environment and health. That’s not an accident. Under Pruitt, the EPA opened 44 percent fewer civil cases against polluters last year than in the previous year, while industry fines for pollution fell by nearly half. Rolling back enforcement and cutting staff are moves that diminish the agency’s capacity to protect us from toxic chemicals in the air we breathe, pesticides in the food we eat, carcinogens in the water we drink, hazardous waste, oil spills, lead poisoning, and cancer-causing radiation. 

Some of Pruitt’s actions pose a direct threat to public health. A year ago, he rejected EPA scientists’ recommendations and refused to finalize the agency’s proposed ban on the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, a dangerous chemical linked to increased risk of learning disabilities and behavioral problems in children. Pruitt’s decision means chlorpyrifos residue can turn up on food, in drinking water, and in agricultural communities, even in the air. 

Pruitt also shelved a proposed ban on the use of a toxic solvent, methylene chloride, in paint strippers. It’s killed at least two people we know of, Drew Wynne and Kevin Hartley, in little more than a year.

And he’s put an indefinite hold on needed safeguards that would reduce the amount of lead, mercury, and arsenic, and other toxic chemicals that power companies may dump into waterways, where they can threaten food and drinking water supplies. 

Pruitt is working to weaken or repeal the Clean Water Rule, which clarifies protection for the wetlands and streams that feed drinking water sources for one in every three Americans. 

He’s trying to turn away from the progress we’re making in fighting global climate change, leading the reckless charge to pull U.S. participation from the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement, which gathers every other nation in the world around the goal of shifting away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner, smarter ways to power our future.

He’s attempting to roll back standards adopted in 2012 to nearly double the gas mileage our cars get by 2025. The standards are already helping consumers save billions of dollars each year at the pump. And they help support nearly 300,000 manufacturing jobs in technologies that make vehicles cleaner and more efficient. Throwing that progress into reverse doesn’t make sense.

Pruitt’s working to repeal the Clean Power Plan, an EPA standard to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that’s driving climate chaos at its single-largest source: dirty power plants, which account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s carbon footprint. The Clean Power Plan is the most important stride we’ve taken to protect future generations from rising seas, widening deserts, withering drought, blistering heat, raging wildfires, storms and floods, and all the other hallmarks of this mounting scourge. We’re not going to surrender our children to those gathering threats for the sake of Pruitt’s allegiance to the dirty fossil fuels of the past.

Don't let the Trump administration destroy the Clean Power Plan

Pruitt, though, isn’t listening to the American people. He’s a captive of the very industries the public pays him to regulate, as evidenced by a schedule chockablock with private meetings with figures from the coal, gas, oil, and chemical industries, and scarcely a moment spent listening to people advocating on behalf of the public interest.

As a government official, moreover, Pruitt has betrayed the public trust, charging taxpayers for nearly $200,000 in travel expenses during just his first six months in office, much of that while flying first class. He’s the only EPA administrator ever to demand his own 24/7 security detail, a contingent of no fewer than 30 bodyguards costing taxpayers some $2 million a year.

New questions about Pruitt’s judgment and ethics surfaced at the end of last week when media outlets revealed that he had rented a bedroom in an upscale Washington condominium for a mere $50 a night—from the wife of a well-connected energy lobbyist. No wonder lawmakers and good-government ethicists are calling for an official investigation of that sweetheart arrangement.

Perhaps no single act has better epitomized Pruitt’s naked contempt for the public he’s supposed to serve than his purchase, at taxpayer expense, of a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth. Heaven knows what business transpires from the secret chamber where Pruitt holds forth with only the sound of his own voice in his ears.

Pruitt has taken the public out of public service. He serves the interests of industrial polluters at the expense of our environment and the health of the American people. The sound of silence is over. It’s time we stood and called out with one voice on behalf of the American people. 

The EPA is the nation’s environmental steward. It’s all that stands between us and a future of toxic pollution and environmental ruin. We need that steward to be strong. That requires leadership devoted to the mission. 

Those who govern this country do so by the consent of the governed. And we do not consent to the dismantling of the EPA. We won’t stand by and watch Pruitt reverse decades of bipartisan gain and turn the country we love into an industrial wasteland. 

Tell the president. Tell Congress. Tell everyone you know: Scott Pruitt is a threat to our environment and health. It’s time for him to go.

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Rhea Suh

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