Pruitt Needs to Go—But So Do Others in Pruitt’s Conflicted and Corrupt EPA

April 6, 2018 | 5:52 pm
Scott Pruitt testifies this week before the Senate for the first time as EPA administrator. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt seems to have a penchant for scandalous behavior, from misuse of public funds to special deals with corporate lobbyists. It was hard to keep up this week with Pruitt press.  Sometimes it is hard to remember that each of these inappropriate actions by the Administrator is connected to an action that undermines public health and safety protections, as described by my colleague Josh Goldman.

And there is really no question that it is time for Pruitt to leave the agency that he leads. He has done more than enough damage to the work of the EPA, sidelining science at the expense of Americans’ health and safety. I certainly hope that the White House hears from Congress and the public that we have all had enough of Mr. Pruitt.

Unfortunately, it will take more than just change at the top for the EPA to once again serve the critical mission it is charged with by Congress—and that all of us in the public need. Mr. Pruitt has filled key positions in the agencies with lobbyists for regulated industry, cronies from Oklahoma and others with deeply held positions in opposition to the agency’s mission.

The year of hiring dangerously

Several months ago I wrote that too many of the Trump Administration’s appointees either have deep conflicts of interest, are opposed to the mission of the agencies they are appointed to, or are fundamentally unqualified. At the EPA, all of those problems are on prominent display, and they don’t end when and if Pruitt is shown the door.

One of the scandals revealed this week is that Mr. Pruitt used a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to appoint Dr. Nancy Beck outside of civil service rules and the ethics requirements of the Trump Administration. He did this because, at the behest of the chemical industry, he wanted former lobbyist Beck to re-write (read: weaken) chemical safety rules. Dr. Beck couldn’t meet President Trump’s own ethics requirements because she previously lobbied for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) on those very rules and therefore has a deep conflict of interest. The result: the implementation of the Chemical Safety Act has been weakened and—shockingly—the rules now fully reflect the ACC stated desires, ignoring input from all other interested parties—like public health experts and affected communities.

Or this week, Mr. Pruitt withdrew common sense automotive fuel efficiency standards that clean our air and save drivers money at the pump. These are standards the auto industry had negotiated and applauded when taxpayers were footing the bill for a huge industry bailout in 2008. Nonetheless, Mr. Pruitt, working with the automakers trade group withdrew that standard without any supporting analysis. Integral to that rollback was EPA Senior Clean Air Advisor William Wehrum, a lawyer for oil, gas, coal and chemical industries. During his career he sued the EPA more than 30 times to rollback public health protections. Not only does he have conflicts of interest because of his recent clients, but this record shows he is largely opposed to the EPA’s mission. Recently he was the architect of a new EPA legal interpretation that has the potential to dramatically increase emissions of hazardous, cancer-causing pollutants from industrial facilities all around the country.

Conflicted and corrupted

Mr. Pruitt has also brought on board EPA staff Dr. Richard Yamada in the Office of Research and Development. Dr. Yamada previously worked with Rep. Lamar Smith (R–TX) to push forward legislative efforts to give regulated industries more seats on EPA’s Science Advisory Boards, as well as excluding certain peer-reviewed science the agency can consider when implementing health and safety protections. Neither of those efforts were successful in Congress. Undaunted, Mr. Pruitt and Dr. Yamada are pushing their implementation by administrative directives, circumventing the will of Congress. They are busy excluding independent scientists from serving as advisors while packing the Boards with industry-based scientists that have been employed to cast doubt on the need for public health protections.

For example, one of their recent advisory board appointees has argued that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health” and needs to be dirtier to protect the public. At the same time, Dr. Yamada is crafting rules to exclude from consideration many public health studies unless all the underlying raw data is released to the public. But since they are studies of public health they rely on the private medical information of real people that can’t be made public. In other words, the EPA shouldn’t use public health science to protect public health. That’s what I mean when I say some appointees seem fundamentally opposed to the mission of the agency.

The collection of conflicted aides stretches into the dozens.

Another on the list: Liz Bowman, Associate Administrator for Public Affairs and Pruitt’s lead spokesperson (and former chemical industry exec) has sought to mislead the American public about Mr. Pruitt’s long list of scandals. Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, who previously lobbied with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, also faced pushback from Senators over the significant conflicts of interest she would face in her job with EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. Erik Baptist, a former lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, joined Pruitt’s EPA as a top lawyer who was approved to advise Pruitt on the renewable fuel law.

And finally, there are the close aides Mr. Pruitt brought in with him to make the unprecedented assault on our children’s and families’ health and safety. One notable name is Albert “Kell” Kelly—disgraced banker (banned from banking for life by the FDIC) and friend of Pruitt from Oklahoma who has no environmental background, but was nonetheless hired to run the cleanup of Superfund sites. Twenty-five million Americans live within 10 miles of these highly toxic industrial waste sites—relicts of the days before polluting industries were regulated by the EPA. It should not escape anyone’s notice that these are the good ol’ days that Mr. Pruitt and his inner circle would like us to return to.

So, yes, Mr. Pruitt, we’re ready to say bye bye. But when you go, please take your corrupt and conflicted colleagues with you (more than I could name in a single post). The EPA needs to get back to doing what we need it to do—protect public health and safety. We don’t need the most extreme positions of some industry groups that oppose any and all regulation at the expense of our children and families. We need EPA and its many highly skilled and committed civil servants, scientists, policy experts, administrative professionals, lawyers and enforcement officers to do the jobs that they do so well. On behalf of all of us—the public.