Week 31: I’ve Got Beef, with Scott Pruitt

The EPA chief puts cows ahead of clean water, the monuments mystery, ExxonMobil’s history of denial, and more science censorship.

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

A pile of manure

iStock

Don’t Give Me Your Bull . . .

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has appeared in a video for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, urging farmers to submit comments to his agency in support of his effort to roll back the Clean Water Rule, which would protect the drinking water sources for 117 million Americans.

Pruitt continues to characterize the Clean Water Rule as an Obama power grab, but his participation in this propaganda video is a tacit acknowledgement of the rule’s true purpose—getting cow shit out of our water.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a lobbying group for the country’s largest meat producers, doesn’t like the Clean Water Rule because it places limits on where its members can dump their manure. Meat producers are constantly being fined for violating EPA regulations. Between 2008 and 2016, the agency conducted 1,981 inspections of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where thousands of animals are kept in always crowded, often unsanitary, and generally nightmarish conditions. The agency found 413 violations of environmental regulations in those inspections, which means that about one in five inspections led to a prosecution.

Keep in mind that those prosecutions were for violations that predate the Clean Water Rule. The problem with the meat industry isn’t a sudden expansion of federal power—the problem is that it’s never been able to follow basic environmental rules. The industry’s response should be to clean up its act. Instead, it has poured more than $100,000 into lobbying in an attempt to change the rules.

If one in five commercial aircraft inspections resulted in a prosecution, would you want to reform the industry or relax the rules? If one in five inspections of daycare inspections resulted in a prosecution, would you want to reform the daycare system or relax the rules?

Perhaps you don’t care as much about animal waste as about toddlers or plane crashes, but this is a big deal. The U.S. meat industry produces more than a billion tons of manure annually. That’s an unfathomable quantity of crap, but to put it into perspective, it’s the weight equivalent of 4.4 million Statues of Liberty, 166 Great Pyramids of Giza, 1,100 Golden Gate Bridges, or 2,700 Empire State Buildings.

A fair amount of this poop is released into U.S. surface waters, either deliberately or accidentally. The EPA estimates that CAFOs are responsible for impairing more than 25,000 miles of rivers and streams and 269,000 acres of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds.

I’m Not Done Yet

Pruitt’s appearance in the beef industry video also runs into some serious ethical issues. First, he tells an egregious lie, claiming that the Clean Water Rule “defined a Water of the United States as being a puddle.” He obviously likes this rhetorical flourish, because he has said it repeatedly, but as the head of the EPA, he must know it’s false. The rule explicitly states that puddles are not “waters of the United States.” (If you don’t believe me, click here for the official text and search for the word puddle.) Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think our government officials should tell the same bald-faced lie over and over again.

Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault

Second, when E&E News asked the EPA why its administrator was appearing in a propaganda video for an industry he’s supposed to be policing, the agency said it was no one’s business “what media outlets we can accept interview requests from.” The rise of social media has, admittedly, loosened the definition of “media outlet,” but a lobbying group for cattle ranchers still doesn’t qualify.

The most charitable reading of Pruitt’s behavior is that he simply doesn’t understand his job. We already have a government entity dedicated to promoting food production—it’s called the Department of Agriculture. The EPA is supposed to protect the environment and is therefore inherently adverse to industries with long histories of polluting air and water. Ranchers should be asking the EPA for help in complying with the rules. Instead, the EPA is asking them for help to weaken them.

Monumental Silence

In April, President Trump ordered U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to make recommendations to shrink, eliminate, or leave intact a slate of national monuments designated by past presidents. On Thursday, Zinke announced to great fanfare that he had delivered his recommendations to the president.

So what did Zinke recommend? Apparently it’s a secret. Zinke let leak to the press that no monuments would be eliminated entirely, but news reports suggest that he wants Trump to downsize “a handful” of monuments. We don’t know which handful, or how much Zinke wants to shrink them, or how he arrived at those conclusions, or when the president will decide.

Zinke’s public summary acknowledged that the public is “overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments,” but it appears the Interior secretary decided the minority should rule. Just like it did in the 2016 election.

Whatever the president decides to do, this story has a long way to run. There’s no precedent for a president substantially shrinking a national monument designation made by his predecessor, and many legal scholars have concluded that Trump doesn’t have that power. Over to you, judges.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Quell

How do mountaintop removal mining operations affect human health? The Trump administration’s answer: “Shut up.”

Mountaintop removal in Wise, Virginia

Alan Gignoux / REX / Shutterstock

Just before the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine were scheduled to hold a hearing featuring people living near mountaintop removal sites, the Department of the Interior sent the scientists a letter ordering them to “cease all work” on the study.

Under the Obama administration, the Interior Department committed $1 million for the study, which was requested by the state of West Virginia. State officials were concerned about academic research suggesting that people living near mountaintop removal operations face an increased risk of birth defects, cancer, and premature death.

The DOI claims the order is part of a larger review of grants and budgeting, but keep your eye on this study—the Trump administration has a habit of silencing scientists.

Rex Negata

A new paper by Harvard researchers shows that ExxonMobil suppressed its knowledge of climate change for decades. More than 80 percent of the oil company’s scientific research and internal memos over the course of 37 years, the authors found, acknowledged the reality of climate change. In contrast, 81 percent of the company’s public-facing advertisements cast doubt on the use of fossil fuels (Exxon’s main product) as a factor in changing the earth’s climate.

Rex Tillerson at a news conference following an ExxonMobil shareholders’ meeting, 2007

LM Otero/AP Photo

The study focused on ExxonMobil’s communications between 1977 and 2014, a period that coincides almost perfectly with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tenure at the company (1975 to 2016). Tillerson is sometimes given credit for being at the helm when ExxonMobil issued its first concrete acknowledgement that climate change is real. But that letter came in 2006, decades after the company’s own research determined that carbon emissions were dangerous. And seven years later, Tillerson openly attacked the settled consensus in a shareholders meeting.

At that 2013 meeting, Tillerson complained that “notwithstanding all that data, our ability to project with any degree of certainty the future [climate] is continuing to be very limited.” At another meeting, in 2015, he mused against taking climate action. “What if everything we do, it turns out our models are lousy, and we don’t get the effects we predicted?” he asked.

The new research paper reveals just how two-faced ExxonMobil has been. And there’s no getting away from the fact that Tillerson was, for a portion of that period, the man behind the masks.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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