Week 48: The Planet Is Warming, but the EPA Can Still Chill Speech

EPA employees are silenced, Pruitt is paranoid, and now’s your chance to sound off.

December 21, 2017

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

Scott Pruitt greets the Japan’s minister of environment, Koichi Yamamoto, during the G7 Meeting on Environment

Alessandro Serrano'/AGF/REX/Shutterstock

Big Pruitt Was Watching

You already knew it was bad working at Scott Pruitt’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The administration is slashing the budget, shrinking staff, attempting to revoke environmental protection measures, and refusing to enforce the laws it hasn’t yet erased from the books.

But, wait, it gets worse. According to a report this week in the New York Times, there’s a guy in northern Virginia who spends his time trying to humiliate and undermine EPA employees who have spoken out against the administration’s deregulatory campaign. Allan Blutstein, the vice president of FOIA operations at the Republican-friendly political action committee America Rising, has submitted dozens of freedom of information requests targeting EPA employees. He’s looking for evidence that they’ve used their agency e-mail addresses to resist the Trump agenda, or, failing that, “anything that would be useful for Republicans.”

Blutstein’s campaign is not subtle. Among his targets is Michael Cox, an EPA employee of 25 years who sent an e-mail to Pruitt on the day of Cox’s retirement in March. Cox told Pruitt he was “increasingly alarmed about the direction of the EPA” under Pruitt’s leadership and suggested the administrator “step back and listen to career EPA staff.” Ten days later, Blutstein submitted a FOIA request for Cox’s internal agency communications. Cox wasn’t the only victim. By mining for Cox’s e-mails, Blutstein was able to identify everyone that Cox commiserated with.

The Cox story shows the effects of Blutstein’s FOIA campaign. Threatening to publicly shame those who disagree with Pruitt will silence those who just want the EPA to do its job.

But wait again, because there’s even more. Blutstein isn’t just a vice president at America Rising. He also happens to be senior vice president at Definers Public Affairs, a consulting firm that the EPA hired (via a no-bid contract) to monitor news coverage of the agency. In other words, the man who spends his days trolling EPA employees was simultaneously profiting from an agency contract.

Blutstein insists that his America Rising work (monitoring criticism of Pruitt) was in no way related to the work of his other employer (monitoring criticism of Pruitt). But the good news is that it’s a moot point. On Tuesday, the EPA bowed to public pressure and canceled its contract with Definers Public Affairs. The agency refused to admit it had made a mistake hiring Definers, but at least it did the right thing. For once.

Paranoid Much?

Scott Pruitt thinks people are watching him. That’s not surprising, I guess. As we just discussed, people who work for Pruitt’s contractors are actively digging into EPA employee e-mails. When your own associates are snooping around like that, it’s reasonable to be paranoid that others are doing the same to you. Plus, Pruitt has a lot to hide—see: a history of passing off industry-written documents as his own and his questionable taxpayer-funded trips.

Perhaps that’s why Pruitt installed a soundproof booth in his office, and why, according to a report this week in The Hill, Pruitt requested a sweep of his office for bugs. Just weeks after arriving at the agency, the EPA apparently paid $3,000 for an outside contractor to go through the administrator’s office with a fine-tooth comb. (No bugs were found.) 

In fairness, The Hill suggests a prior administrator’s office may have been swept for bugs, too, but quotes a 25-year former EPA employee who says this is “certainly not routine.” Nor are the $6,000 biometric locks Pruitt had installed at the agency. Pruitt is probably the most secretive administrator the EPA has ever seen. And probably also the worst. Coincidence?

Tell Pruitt What You Think

Here’s an opportunity for you to tell Scott Pruitt what you think, presumably without his cronies rifling through your e-mail. On Monday, the agency opened the 60-day public comment period for its proposed replacement of the Clean Power Plan. Specifically, the EPA wants your ideas on the “roles, responsibilities, and limitations” of federal and state government, as well as power plant operators.

My comment would go something like this: Climate change is a grave threat to our economy and society, as well as the safety and security of the world. The federal government has a responsibility to act against such threats. State governments have vital roles to play in implementing a comprehensive plan to minimize the carbon emissions that cause climate change, but the federal government must take the lead in devising that plan. (If only someone had designed a plan that did exactly that—a national plan that set standards for states to follow in reducing power plant emissions, a plan to generate clean power.)

I would also comment that the federal government’s role is not to undermine the settled science of climate change by deliberately spreading misinformation for the benefit of its patrons in the fossil fuel industry. Nor is it the role of the states to stymie and stall the federal government’s efforts to protect us from climate change at every possible opportunity.

It is the role of power plant operators (the “regulated community,” in Pruitt’s ludicrous parlance) to comply with the law rather than use all their financial might to lobby against regulations to clean our air and protect our children.

But that’s just what I would say. You should e-mail your own comments to a-and-r-Docket@epa.gov. Include docket number EPA-HQ-OAR-2017-0545 in the subject line of the message.

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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