Week 74: Move Over, Pruitt . . . Zinke Is This Week’s King of Corruption

Also, Trump sells off our oceans.

June 22, 2018

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

Two Oil Men Walk Into a Brewery . . .

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has launched an assault on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s petty scandal throne.

Politico reported this week on a dizzying web of shady land deals and ethical improprieties involving Zinke, Halliburton head David Lesar, BNSF Railway, and some foundations and companies linked to the Zinke family. Grab yourself a coffee, rub your temples, and hunker down, because this is going to take a minute.

After Zinke retired from the military in 2008, he launched a nonprofit foundation to construct a veterans’ park in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. BNSF Railway donated land to the foundation. BNSF has also, incidentally, donated money to at least one of Zinke’s political campaigns. Shortly after his foundation received the land, Zinke became a state senator and cast a vote benefiting BNSF. The park, however, never materialized, and the land remains in the hands of Zinke’s foundation, now formally run by his wife, Lola. In the words of a Whitefish resident, the property is now “sort of a big puddle, a mudhole puddle.”

Recently, David Lesar, the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton, proposed a commercial development in Whitefish. Zinke’s foundation has allegedly agreed to use part of the slated parkland as a parking lot for Lesar’s development. If true, Zinke’s foundation is about to do business with a person who has donated to Zinke’s political campaigns, and whose company is often the subject of regulation by the Zinke-led Department of Interior.

In addition to his links to the foundation, Zinke has financial interests in two businesses, Double Tap and Continental Divide International, which own land adjacent to or near the planned development. Those properties stand to increase substantially in value if Lesar’s project goes forward. Lesar has also reportedly set aside a retail space for the Zinke family to open a microbrewery, yet a third way that Zinke stands to benefit from the project.

Marilyn Glynn, who oversaw the Office of Government Ethics during the George W. Bush administration, told Politico, “In a previous administration, whether Bush or Obama, you’d never run across something like this.”

After you get over the sleaziness of the Trump administration, you have to be struck by how paltry some of the corruption is. While Administrator Pruitt has sledgehammered his career prospects and undermined the credibility of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to save a few bucks on rent and to try to score his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise, Secretary Zinke is tarnishing his reputation for a microbrewery.

It gives you a sense of how little these men value their own integrity that they are willing to sell it so cheaply. If I were going to hock my reputation and credibility in full view of the entire country, I’d want more than a brewpub.

Coal Ash Rehash

In 2008, a dike failure in Tennessee released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash, the toxic leftovers from burning coal for electricity. The waste infiltrated two rivers, coated 300 acres of land, and has so far cost more than $1 billion to clean up. The incident dwarfed the previous coal ash spill record of 306 million gallons in Kentucky in 2000. It also finally got federal regulators to act on coal ash, until then one of the most underregulated environmental dangers in the United States.

The Obama administration promulgated a coal ash disposal rule in 2015. No one was particularly happy with it. Industry didn’t want coal ash regulated at all, while environmental groups complained that the rule categorized toxic coal ash as solid waste rather than hazardous waste. But at least the EPA had taken the first step, requiring companies to store coal ash in lined pits and mandating periodic inspections of waste sites.

In March of this year, the Trump administration decided even that weak rule was too stringent and took steps to undo it. Then, this week, Pruitt began the process of devolving coal ash management to the states, approving Oklahoma’s application to run its own permit program.

History proves that states are not in a position to regulate environmental hazards. In the pre-EPA era, environmental regulation was almost the exclusive domain of states. States engaged in a race to the bottom, begging companies to set up shop in their struggling economies in exchange for leniency on their pollution.

The coal ash rule is a rehashing of that history in miniature. States were responsible for regulating coal ash before 2015, and the result was a series of disasters. Why would anyone want to try that again?

Here’s one possibility: Pruitt is acting at the behest of coal baron Bob Murray, who included the rollback of the coal ash disposal rule in his “action plan,” a wish list of regulatory rollbacks delivered to the Trump administration. For any normal administration, the revelation of the action plan would have been embarrassing enough to prevent the enactment of its items. But the Trump administration has no shame, so Pruitt has been granting Murray’s wishes like a corrupt, soot-covered genie.

The Secret Science Rule in Action

For the past three years, Harvard University and SUNY Upstate Medical University researchers have been collecting detailed health information from people who work in 100 different buildings around the world. The goal is to determine how building designs and conditions affect the cognitive and physical health of workers. The study, the most comprehensive of its kind, should inform building standards and environmental regulations for years to come.

Except that it probably won’t here in the States, because Pruitt’s “secret science” rule seems to prohibit the EPA from using Harvard’s findings. Pruitt has decided that his agency can’t rely on any study that hasn’t fully published all of its raw data. He claims that the rule will increase scientific transparency, but in fact it’s just a pretext to ignore decades of excellent science that Pruitt finds inconvenient (for instance, carbon pollution’s effect on health and climate).

This study is a perfect example of the problem with Pruitt’s rule. Because the researchers are collecting sensitive personal health information, they have agreed not to disclose the underlying data to protect the privacy of participants. It’s a standard commitment, and very few people would volunteer for such studies without it.

By ignoring such research, Pruitt isn’t increasing scientific transparency. He’s forcing scientists and study subjects to choose between privacy and relevance―for no good (scientific) reason.

Stop the EPA from censoring crucial science

How Soon They Forget

President Obama adopted a landmark oceans policy in 2010, creating a commission to prevent conflict among various users of our oceans, including the shipping, drilling, recreation, and fishing industries. It also allowed for the creation of regional management plans that would be reviewed annually to ensure appropriate stewardship of the oceans.

This week, President Trump repealed the policy, fulfilling a request from fossil fuel companies. We could dwell on how ill-advised this decision is, but instead let’s just consider the response of the National Ocean Industries Association, whose president, Randall Luthi, said, “The offshore energy industry has successfully operated side by side with other ocean users, without major conflict.”

Seven years ago, the Deepwater Horizon exploded, triggering the biggest spill in offshore drilling history. The fishing industry is still tallying up its losses, which are projected to run more than $8 billion and 22,000 jobs by 2020. I’d call that a major conflict between (at least) two ocean users, wouldn’t you?

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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