Week 68: Why the EPA Let a Pesticide Violator Off Easy

Also, Administrator Scott Pruitt equates hard questions (and mustache doodles) with security threats.

May 11, 2018

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

The Problem With Hiring Lobbyists

In January 2016, a subsidiary of the agro-giant Syngenta allegedly sprayed the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos on a field on a Hawaii farm. Because the pesticide is so potent, workers are required to wear protective gear when working with or near it. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Syngenta failed to warn its workers of the presence of this neurotoxin. As a result, 10 employees had to be taken to the hospital. The following year, the company allegedly allowed unprepared workers onto a chlorpyrifos-treated field again.

The Obama-era EPA imposed a $4.8 million fine on Syngenta for its misdeeds. One year into the Trump administration, that fine dropped to just $150,000, plus $400,000 to be put into a fund for employee pesticide training. And the company admitted no wrongdoing. It’s not unusual for the EPA to lower a fine—the initial number is often a starting point in a negotiation. But to reduce a fine by 89 percent is definitely unusual. This week, The Hill published some details on how the company got off so easy.

According to the article, Syngenta started lobbying EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in February 2017, just a month after its alleged second chlorpyrifos offense. In October 2017, Syngenta lobbyist Jeff Sands joined the EPA as an agricultural advisor, accepting a pay cut of nearly $100,000. He worked at the EPA for only five months—which included the time when the agency slashed his former employer’s fine.

The EPA would have us believe this is all a crazy coincidence. Sands, after all, had no formal role in negotiating the Syngenta settlement. And maybe (maybe) that’s true. But imagine being an EPA attorney locked in negotiations with Syngenta, when suddenly the big boss hires a lobbyist from your opponent to oversee his chemicals policy. You’d get the message.

Germany has a phrase for this phenomenon: vorauseilender Gehorsam, or “anticipatory obedience.” A boss doesn’t have to explicitly pressure his workers into following his commands, even if they are unethical or illegal. Rather, he can simply create a culture in which everyone knows what he expects from them.

Pruitt has packed the EPA with lobbyists from highly polluting industries. He flouts ethical standards on a near daily basis. He shrouds every move in secrecy. He probably didn’t have to tell his underlings, “Hey, cut Syngenta a sweetheart deal.” They probably already knew.

And now, Pruitt doesn’t have to tell polluters, “Hey, go ahead and put your employees’ health at risk. We’ll let you off easy.” They already know too.

Demand that Scott Pruitt be fired now

Pruitt Scandal-o-Rama

Let’s reach into the Scott Pruitt scandal bag and see what pops out this week. First up, we learned that the EPA administrator’s refusal to meet with the public or release his schedule has nothing to do with his personal security and everything to do with his fear of facing hard questions, according to emails released this week via a Freedom of Information Act Request (something the EPA has become even slower at fulfilling).

When Pruitt toured a Texas Toyota plant in August, organizers were told the event would be unpublicized. Then, after the tour was over, the EPA released photos and descriptions to the press. “I thought you all did not want any press coverage,” said a Toyota executive. The EPA’s press office explained they wanted press coverage, but only on the agency’s own terms.

When Pruitt attended town hall events, EPA press officials insisted on the right to script the questions Pruitt would be asked. Questions like “What has it been like to work with President Trump?” I’ll give you a moment to suppress your gag reflex.

Presented with the emails, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations told the New York Times, “The security aspect is smoke and mirrors. [Pruitt] didn’t want anybody to question anything.”

The wave of negative publicity for Pruitt over the past month shows his efforts to protect his image have been just about effective as his efforts to protect the environment. (At least his incompetence is consistent.)

The trove of FOIA emails also revealed details about some of the threats against Pruitt. While some of the stories appear plausibly serious, the threats overall have been similar to those faced by previous EPA administrators who did not demand millions of dollars’ worth of round-the-clock security and first-class air travel. Obama-era administrator Gina McCarthy, for example, received a death threat for her failure to ban glyphosate, sent from a person who kept an assault rifle in the living room.

Some of the threats were downright comical, including someone drawing a mustache on a photo of Pruitt and taping it inside an EPA elevator. To its credit, the EPA Office of Inspector General recommended closing the case for “lack of an overt threat.” But you have to wonder who at the EPA interpreted a mustache as a death threat. Life must be very challenging for that person.

We also learned more this week about Pruitt’s harebrained idea to stage a debate between climate scientists and climate change deniers. The effort was supported by the CO2 Coalition, which appears to be an advocacy group for carbon dioxide. The tagline on the coalition’s website is “Carbon dioxide is essential for life,” which is true, albeit entirely beside the point. The world is chock-full of substances that are essential to health in small amounts, but dangerous at higher concentrations: manganese, vitamin A, potassium, water . . . I could go on.

Anyway, the actual climate scientists at the EPA—you know, the people Pruitt is supposed to be supervising and who actually understand climate change—were in no way involved in the planned debate.

The emails also show that, even after White House Chief of Staff John Kelly mercifully put the kibosh on the debate, Pruitt continued to bandy the idea around.

I’ll leave you with one last morsel from the Pruitt front. E&E reports that Pruitt loves $17 cheeseburgers. He likes them so much that he demands that his driver use his vehicle’s lights and siren to get them faster.

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.

onEarth Story

And the president nominates two more saboteurs to top positions at the Interior and Transportation Departments.

Policy Primer

Shown to be toxic to kids, chlorpyrifos is nevertheless still being sprayed on crops across the country—and making its way into our bodies. So why has the EPA refused to ban it?

What's At Stake

The administration’s assault on our environment and health is unlike any threat we’ve ever faced.

onEarth Story

A recent ruling on methane emissions serves as a smackdown to Pruitt’s EPA—and a way forward for environmentalists.

onEarth Story

Plus, NASA is ordered off climate research while Trump (maybe) acknowledges climate change.

onEarth Story

The EPA administrator devalues our future, Congressman Bishop devalues our history, and industrialists devalue Rick Perry.

onEarth Story

California cities square off against oil companies in a debate over who’s to blame for a warming planet.

onEarth Story

Pruitt speculates that climate change is healthy, Trump is looking for a few good scientists, and the dog ate the State Department’s carbon emissions report

NRDC in Action

The current administration’s suppression of data and information is unprecedented. But so are NRDC’s efforts to combat it.

onEarth Story

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.