Week 57: Judge Tells Pruitt to Stop with the Formaldehyde Already

Pruitt is in trouble over toxic chemicals and travel, Rick Perry gets it wrong on whistle-blowers, and Ryan Zinke is driving scientists out of Interior.

February 23, 2018

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

Mariel Carr/Chemical Heritage Foundation

Safety Delayed Is Safety Denied

A federal judge this week slapped down Scott Pruitt’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for illegally delaying implementation of a rule that limits formaldehyde in wood products.

The case has a long backstory. In its rush to house displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered tens of thousands of trailers made from wood that turned out to be tainted with excess levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that can also cause immediate health effects like nosebleeds and skin irritation. Tragically, some people continued to live in the trailers for years after the health risks were recognized.

Congress finally acted in 2010, passing a law to limit the amount of formaldehyde that certain wood products could emit. Industry was given ample—some might say overly generous, given the health implications—time to comply. The EPA was supposed to implement the rules by 2013. But the agency didn’t actually complete the regulations until after the original deadline, giving industry until late 2016 to comply—more than six years after Congress passed the law.

Pruitt, however, felt six years wasn’t quite enough time for the wood industry to stop soaking its products in dangerous levels of a known carcinogen. So he gave them two more years for basic wood products. Producers of laminated wood were given until 2024.

In other words, a child who was born around the time the danger was recognized could be a parent herself by the time the rules finally take effect.

Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recognized the absurdity of the situation this week and ordered the EPA and the environmental groups that brought the lawsuit to formulate a reasonable timetable for implementation of the eight-year-old rule. No word yet on whether the EPA will appeal in an effort to win Pruitt’s industry allies a few more months to produce carcinogenic wood products.

Who’s Weak Now?

Six months ago, Rick Perry’s U.S. Department of Energy went on a campaign to stop leakers from talking to the news media. They hung up posters in department headquarters declaring that “every leak makes us weak.”

Nice touch with the melting American flag, which roughly equates leaking a picture of Rick Perry hugging a coal executive to handing over West Point to the British.

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency within the executive branch, didn’t take well to those posters, which didn’t quite capture the nuance of federal whistle-blower laws. The OSC confirmed this week that the posters have been taken down, and the office has updated its guidance to federal agencies about how not to deter legitimate whistle-blowers.

Leaking may weaken a president who is drunk on power, but it doesn’t necessarily weaken our government. W. Mark Felt blew the lid off of the Watergate scandal through his conversations with the Washington Post when he was the FBI’s associate director. Daniel Ellsberg exposed the lies of the Vietnam War by leaking to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. And under some circumstances, “leaking” is actually required by federal law, for example when a federal employee uncovers waste, fraud, abuse, or—ahem—corruption and is bound to report it.

Et Tu, Gowdy?

It says a lot about the current state of our government that, after a year of tearing up our environmental regulations and giving passes to the country’s worst polluters, Scott Pruitt has finally gotten the attention of Congress by spending too much on airfare. But if that’s what it takes to rid us of his malign influence, I certainly won’t complain.

Representative Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, this week requested documents relating to the EPA administrator’s habit of traveling first class at massive taxpayer expense.

Join Robert Redford and sign a letter of protest against EPA chief Scott Pruitt

The EPA’s explanation for Pruitt’s gold-plated airfares has shifted. A spokesperson initially claimed that Pruitt had received a “blanket waiver” to government rules restricting excess travel expenses because Pruitt’s safety is at risk when he travels in economy. (Apparently fellow travelers have exercised their First Amendment rights to tell Pruitt that he’s “f---ing up the environment” while waiting to board an aircraft.) The EPA mouthpiece was so confident in the existence of said waiver that he explicitly urged reporters to file a Freedom of Information Act petition so they could see it for themselves.

Oops. It soon emerged that there is no provision in law for such a blanket waiver. The same spokesperson eventually retracted the blanket waiver claim and insisted that Pruitt applies for a waiver for each individual trip.

Don’t believe him? You should FOIA those waiver requests. They’re real. Probably.

Gowdy’s dogged investigation of Pruitt’s profligate spending will be revealing. The South Carolinian gained notoriety for the series of Benghazi inquiries that, according to Gowdy, were a noble and tireless effort to uncover facts that Americans deserve from their government. Will he do the same to Pruitt?

Yet Another Scientific Integrity Dispute

News emerged this week that two senior scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey resigned in protest, one in December and another more recently, after U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asked them to hand over data on oil and gas deposits in Alaska before the information was disclosed to the public.

The dispute is slightly esoteric, but basically the USGS has rules limiting who can view such information because it could be of enormous value to oil and gas companies. Zinke believed, and apparently continues to believe, that the interior secretary is within the sphere of people allowed to view the data before public release. Murray Hitzman, associate director of the USGS energy and minerals program, and Larry Meinert, acting deputy associate director of the same unit, disagreed. When the secretary demanded the data, Hitzman and Meinert refused to release them, then resigned.

While an Interior spokesperson claims the office of the solicitor sided with Zinke, Meinert, who had worked at USGS since 2012, said this incident was unique—no director had ever asked for the confidential information during his tenure, and there was no reason for this director to see it before its public release.

Especially in an administration with both a leaking problem and a red phone to oil executives.

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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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