Mr. Pruitt, the EPA’s Job Is to Protect Our Health and Safety. Will You?

December 22, 2016 | 1:11 pm
Gage Skidmore/CC-BY-SA 2.0, Flickr
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

President-elect Trump’s nominee to serve as the head of the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is well known for his attacks on the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Power Plan. But the EPA has a much broader responsibility to protect the health and safety of Americans. EPA was given the responsibility by Congress to reduce the threat of industrial pollution that impacts us all, which runs the gamut from air and water pollution to solid and radioactive waste disposal.  If he is confirmed, that will become Mr. Pruitt’s mission. But frankly, after looking into his history in Oklahoma, I am worried that he is fundamentally opposed to carrying out the agency’s charge to defend environmental and public health.

With regard to the ongoing effects of global warming, his approach so far has been to deny it is a problem through the courts and in public statements with complete disrespect for science and scientists. He has led the charge in suing the EPA on the Clean Power Plan, filing suit four times against the plan itself. Three of these were unsuccessful suits filed before the plan was even final. The fourth is pending. He has also filed suit against rules for new or modified plants to meet higher CO2 standards, as well as, unsuccessfully, against the finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health. The latter “endangerment finding” was upheld by the US Supreme Court, though Mr. Pruitt continues to refer to it as “unlawful”. I guess he puts himself above the Court. All this seems to pass for “action” in Mr. Pruitt’s view and those of his principal supporters—the oil and gas industry companies who are primarily responsible for the pollution in the first place. In fact, it seems those supporters even write some of Mr. Pruitt’s opinions for him to hasten his “action”.

But what about other issues that the EPA must confront on behalf of us all? What about other air or water pollution issues? Or enforcing the laws to hold accountable those who violate the rules? Perhaps one can argue the attorney general is not the primary public health, safety and environmental protection officer for the state. But as the highest-ranking law enforcement official, surely prosecuting bad actors that threaten the public is part of his job description (as it will be at the EPA)?

Map of EPA air quality ratings for Oklahoma

A map of EPA air quality ratings for Oklahoma shows how badly we need the agency to carry out its mission. Unfortunately, Scott Pruitt’s record doesn’t offer much hope.

Mr. Pruitt’s office has clearly been busy protecting the health and safety of Oklahomans by, you guessed it, filing lawsuits against the EPA for their rules to reduce ozone, mercury and other air toxic contaminants, regional haze, cross-state air pollution and Clean Water Act protections. Clearly, to the Attorney General, filing suit is far more important than enforcing environmental laws, because while in office he closed the environmental law enforcement unit in the Oklahoma AG’s office, and opened a Federalism unit. His spokesman stated that environmental enforcement is now handled by the solicitor general. E&E News reports that in the Solicitor General’s office, the Federalism Unit, in the first year of Mr. Pruitt’s leadership, went from a budget of zero in 2010, to over half a million dollars in  2014. At the same time the budget for environmental law fell from just under half a million dollars in 2010, to zero in 2014. Not surprisingly, a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry commented that Mr. Pruitt had found a good balance in addressing environmental concerns. That balance? Sue the EPA to reduce protections and stop enforcing them at home.

What about within the state of Oklahoma—has Mr. Pruitt been front and center on any public health and safety issues? Among many others, a huge spike in earthquakes associated with fracking and wastewater disposal from fracking operations is a major concern. Has the Attorney General been prominent on this issue that affects so many Oklahomans? Well, no. But then again, his 2013 campaign chairman and now strong supporter for his nomination to head the EPA, Harold Hamm, tried to have scientists researching the link between fracking and earthquakes fired from the University of Oklahoma.

Another major health and safety issue in Oklahoma is coal ash disposal. And this is an issue ready-made for the Attorney General. After all, he has spent much of his term suing the EPA for “overreach”, and lauding the role of the state in managing environmental and public health problems. But with coal ash, EPA regulations are acknowledged to be too weak.  So what has the state done to protect citizens, with the strong arm of the AG to back them up? Umm, nothing really.

We need an EPA Administrator who takes the mission of the agency as their own—to protect the public health and safety of all Americans. Mr. Pruitt has shown repeatedly that his mission is to protect industry from owning up to the impacts they are having on the public’s health. He has spent his public service career fighting against needed protections. He is quite clearly the wrong choice to lead the EPA.