The familiar litany of now-former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s abuse of office is long, bizarre and shameful. But much more damaging were Pruitt’s policies.
President Donald Trump’s tweeted praise for the “outstanding job” done by Pruitt was wildly wrong. Trump probably believes that because Pruitt has been doing Trump’s bidding in subverting the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment. One policy after another meant to rein in the excesses of industrial pollution has been targeted and steamrolled to pave the way for corporate capture of the agency. Pruitt’s legally dubious policy rollbacks, if they survive court battles, will put people’s health in danger.
Trump also tweeted to break the news that Andrew Wheeler would be named Pruitt’s replacement. This is a further betrayal of the American public.
Being an effective EPA administrator often means going up against your own party and your own president to represent the best interests of the American public. If Pruitt’s actions were not enough, his fawning letter of resignation made it perfectly clear that serving the American public was never his priority. He was only ever serving his “friend” Trump.
When a new administration takes office, one expects some of its predecessor’s priorities to be re-examined. But Pruitt went far beyond that and made every effort to turn the environmental agency into a rubber stamp for industry. This explains the exodus of more than 700 EPA staff. Many chemists, biologists, economists, epidemiologists, lab techs, lawyers and engineers – public servants who worked to protect America’s environment and health under Democratic and Republican administrations alike – were unable to stomach how Pruitt perverted the agency, so they left.
Columbia Law School’s Climate Deregulation Tracker lists 31 efforts by the EPA under Pruitt to undo long-established rules that protect public health from air and water pollution. Toxic waste allowed into streams, methane needlessly leaking into the air, power plant and tailpipe emissions unleashed, restricting the use of widely accepted public-health research – these policies hurt all Americans, regardless of party.
As uncomfortable as it makes Republican leadership, climate change must be faced. Yet every action related to climate change that Pruitt’s EPA initiated appeared premised on the pretense that it doesn’t exist. Pruitt sought to reverse the modest Clean Power Plan to lower climate-altering carbon pollution, and he pushed to reverse popular automobile fuel-efficiency rules that save drivers money. References to climate change were even scrubbed from the EPA website.
All this as we face record heat and wildfires and are starting a new hurricane season after last summer’s catastrophic storms. These impacts are linked to climate change by the consensus of scientists. All of it threatens public health.
As my fellow former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus wrote in The Post in November, it is difficult but not impossible to regain the trust of the public once it has been lost. Americans deserve an EPA administrator who they know, without a shadow of a doubt, has their best interests in mind. These matters of pollution and toxic waste aren’t theoretical political musings; they’re matters of life and death. Industry, by its very nature, will seek ways to reduce costs, and often that means cutting corners on safety. Americans need to know the EPA administrator has their back if they’re going to believe the agency when a Superfund site is declared clean or a regulation is deemed burdensome.
Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, will take up the same agenda as Pruitt. Even before joining the EPA as deputy administrator, Wheeler was caught up in controversy over a secret meeting between his former coal boss and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Coal is the dirtiest source of energy at every stage. From the black lung disease that’s making a comeback in miners, to the coal ash that befouls waterways when spilled, to the particulate pollution and the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted when it’s burned, it is not an exaggeration to say that coal kills.
Having worked for Murray Energy, one of the biggest coal companies, Wheeler is unlikely to make any sort of serious effort to force the coal industry to clean up its act. Instead, I fear he will help industry reps find and expand loopholes so they can pollute with abandon.
If Trump really wants to keep Americans from breathing polluted air, and restore trust in the EPA, he should nominate someone to lead the nation’s preeminent environmental steward – someone who has a proven record of protecting the public from pollution, not protecting polluters from the public.
Otherwise, what did “drain the swamp” ever really mean?
Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator from 2001 to 2003, is president of the Whitman Strategy Group environmental and energy consulting firm.
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