Environmental Justice

Scott Pruitt and the Environmental Protection Agency

By Toni Conaway

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established December 2, 1970 to consolidate federal research, establish industry standards for pollutant and waste management, and enforcement of these regulations to ensure environmental protection.

Scott Pruitt, the current head of the EPA and former Attorney General of Oklahoma, sued the EPA fourteen times trying to block clean air and water protections. Now he is denying science, silencing scientists, working under a cloak of secrecy, keeping his schedule secret, shrinking the staff, and meeting regularly with executives from the mining, fossil fuel and auto industries. It’s no surprise that he consistently sides with the polluters.

Pruitt’s leadership has hurt the environment and endangered public health, and his agenda is carried out with enthusiasm by his appointees. One such staffer, Dr. Nancy Beck, has been instrumental in subverting the Lautenberg Law requiring evaluation of thousands of chemicals, new and existing, for safety. Dr. Beck has been a key influencer in the government for decades, defending the interests of various chemicals manufacturers, including Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont and others. As a White House scientist under President George W. Bush, Dr. Beck was called out by name in a 2009 report detailing the suppression of environmental science by the Bush administration for her blatant and repeated attempts to rewrite assessments of toxic chemicals, often times undermining the EPA’s own conclusions. Her efforts have made it harder to conclude that a chemical is dangerous: the EPA is ignoring dangers of chemicals no longer made in the U.S. and only evaluating a chemical’s risks for a narrow set of uses. Methylene chloride, a deadly chemical in paint strippers, was banned in 2016 but Pruitt’s EPA has put it in regulatory limbo.

The EPA is being taken to court over some of these actions. The department had 14,162 employees at the start of the Trump administration, but at least 1200 have been terminated or resigned since. An examination of EPA Region 5, headquartered in Chicago, shows some results of this diminished capacity. There were ten inspectors for injection wells in Chicago, now there are just three. There were four superfund investigators, now there are zero. In Indiana, there were 202 enforcement actions carried out in 2011. There were only 26 last year. Nationally, enforcement for public drinking water standards is the lowest since 2011. Penalties for air pollution are down 1/3 under Trump, as well as enforcement against hazardous waste violations.

The EPA is trying to repeal the Clean Power Plan (CPP) which is the most significant action the U.S. has taken to address climate change with ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets. In order to justify repealing the CPP, the EPA has inflated its costs and obscured the benefit of its work.

Pruitt’s efforts to hollow-out the EPA, sideline science, disregard reasoned decision-making, create fearful work environments, shrink staff, and create new rules to shield oil and gas companies are a devastating sentence for the environment and public health.

(Some of the information in this article came from the Environmental Defense Fund’s winter (2018) and spring (2018) editions of “Solutions,” and the Union of Concerned Scientists spring (2018) edition of “Catalyst.”

Toni Conaway is an environmental activist and a long time member of the Thomas Merton Center.

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