Week 69: Trump Buries Study on Contaminated Drinking Water

Plus, Pruitt is now under 12 separate investigations.

May 18, 2018

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

Your Health Emergency Is Trump’s PR Problem

In late January, word began spreading through the Trump administration that a government study was about to be released showing that certain water contaminants endanger human health at far lower levels than previously estimated. The administration subsequently suppressed the study for nakedly political reasons, according to emails published this week by Politico.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” wrote an unidentified White House aide in an email forwarded in January. “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.” ATSDR is the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The research remains unpublished. It can be easy to lose sight of evil when enduring the current administration’s regular drumbeat of scandal and sleaziness. But this is it. Federal scientists determined that Americans were being exposed to unsafe levels of industrial chemicals in their drinking water, and the Trump administration viewed this as a public relations disaster rather than a human tragedy.

Even today, months after the study on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFOA and PFOS) was completed, the administration continues to keep families in the dark about their potential health risks, including low birth weight, immune effects, and cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the story has been predictably grotesque. Ryan Jackson, an aide to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, told Politico the agency is trying to “ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and Congressional constituents and partners.” By “responding in a uniform way,” he seems to be referring to stonewalling, censorship, and arrogance. But at least they’re consistent.

Maybe if Pruitt had maintained a credible board of scientific advisers, rather than sidelining the agency’s legitimate researchers and slowly replacing them with industry hacks, he could have mounted a vaguely plausible critique of the study’s science. But he can’t even muster that. In the end, Pruitt has no defense whatsoever for politicizing government science at the expense of American families.

Stop the EPA from censoring crucial science

But His Emails . . .

Pruitt reached a landmark this week: There are now 12 federal investigations into his ethical misdeeds. The latest involves Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts. The EPA administrator has reportedly been using three secret epa.gov accounts, which raises a couple of concerns. First, are adequate records of Pruitt’s communications being kept as required by federal law? Second, when the EPA receives a Freedom of Information Act request relating to Pruitt’s emails, is the agency searching all of his multiple email accounts?

The FOIA question is likely the hotter of the two, because we already know that Pruitt and his staff are stymieing efforts to let the sunshine in at the EPA. In 2017 alone, the agency faced 46 lawsuits over its failure to respond adequately to information requests—more than double its highest previous caseload for a single year.

While acknowledging that it has launched the email investigation, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins warned Congress that it could take a very long time. After all, it’s hard for one office to juggle this many ethical scandals at once.

Please Stop Me Before I Spend Again!

When questioned about its administrator’s ludicrous and unprecedented demand for round-the-clock personal security, the EPA has repeatedly said the measures were in response to credible threats against Pruitt. That claim has been crumbling for a while, especially when we learned that the threats against Pruitt were nearly identical to those received by past EPA administrators. This week, we discover that the time line of the excuse doesn’t even make sense.

The EPA inspector general has told Democratic senators that it was Pruitt himself—not professional security staff—who demanded 24-hour personal security, and he did so on his very first day in office. The good news is that even senators recognize the absurdity of the situation. When Pruitt appeared before Congress on Wednesday, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont told him his security worries were unfounded because “nobody even knew who you were.” Burn. Leahy went on to call Pruitt a “laughingstock.”

Speaking of laughing, Pruitt offered an unintentionally hilarious self-defense during the hearings. He complained that the EPA didn’t have a good enough system to prevent spending abuses: “There were not proper controls early to ensure a legal review.” In other words, Pruitt is disappointed that there wasn’t a system in place to stop people like him from blowing taxpayer money. It’s like a chain smoker blaming the convenience store for putting the cigarettes in plain view. I have an idea. Let’s put all of the EPA’s money in a vault. Every time Pruitt wants to buy himself a new soundproof booth, or a first-class plane ticket, or a 21st (!) personal security guard, he’ll have to knock on the big metal door and ask Representative Trey Gowdy for permission.

Or we could just fire Pruitt. That’s probably easier.

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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