Scott Pruitt’s EPA Confirmation Would Be An Assault on Health Safeguards

BY ON January 4, 2017

Young girl sitting by a lake

This was written by Vickie Patton, General Counsel for Environmental Defense Fund:

With the confirmation battle fast approaching over President-elect Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we would like to share some information we have compiled about his environmental record as Oklahoma Attorney General. Even if you have already written about Pruitt’s nomination, we hope it will be worth your while to take a closer look at the details below.

Only once in the almost fifty-year history of EPA has the agency been led by someone openly hostile to its mission of environmental protection. That brief experiment in the early 1980’s ended in political and legal scandal. In all other cases, through both Republican and Democratic presidents, EPA has been led by someone generally within the bipartisan mainstream of the agency’s important and extremely popular mission of protecting Americans from harmful pollution.

Scott Pruitt would radically break that consensus.

While many media stories have focused on the fact that Pruitt disputes the reality of climate change, less attention has been paid to his record as a relentless opponent of basic pollution limits – the kind that protect American families from mercury, smog, arsenic and other dangerous air pollutants (see examples here, here, and here).

Pruitt has even tried to cast doubt on the danger of polluting our lakes and rivers – and ultimately the fish we eat – with mercury, which is a neurotoxin that the American Academy of Pediatrics has identified as particularly dangerous to developing children. In fact, in a legal brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, he asserted that “the record does not support EPA’s findings that mercury … pose[s] public health hazards.” (Brief at page 23) And, after a first challenge to our nation’s mercury protections left them intact, Pruitt was so intent on blocking these safeguards that he sued a second time — even after virtually all our nation’s power plants had already complied with the mercury protections at a fraction of the expected cost.

Thanks in part to the EPA clean air standards that Pruitt opposed, mercury levels in Atlantic Bluefin tuna are now rapidly declining. These EPA standards provide vital safeguards for the hundreds of thousands of infants born each year who are at risk of impaired brain development due to mercury exposure from contaminated fish. In Pruitt’s own home state of Oklahoma, recent mercury testing has helped reveal the serious scope of the contamination. While Attorney General Pruitt was busy using tax dollars to litigate and obstruct national mercury safeguards, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality was partnering with conservation experts to sample mercury fish contamination – and the number of Oklahoma lakes listed for mercury contamination was climbing. This year, Oklahoma lists 40 lakes with fish consumption advisories due to mercury levels – up from 19 listed in 2010. Eight lakes were added just this year.

Mercury discharged from coal plant smokestacks both contributes to localized hot spots and is transported to downwind states where it contaminates lakes and rivers. Mercury fish contamination is not limited to the Atlantic or to Oklahoma – it is extensive and spans lakes and rivers across all regions of the U.S. That is why we need nationwide standards to limit the mercury from coal plant smokestacks, our nation’s single largest source of toxic mercury. The good news is that the declining mercury in the Atlantic Bluefin tuna underscores that EPA’s safeguards are helping to protect our children from the scourge of this toxin. What’s so alarming is that Pruitt would unravel these critical and effective protections.

Pruitt has also attacked limits on ground level ozone – better known as smog – despite the fact that ozone pollution problems are worsening in Oklahoma. The latest American Lung Association report gave all Oklahoma counties surveyed an “F” for ozone problems and found that the number of high ozone days had increased in most counties as compared to 2010 – 2012.

As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt shut down his office’s environmental enforcement unit, which investigated issues like water contamination and illegal dumping. That action sent a signal to the most irresponsible elements of industry that there would be few legal consequences for violating clean air and water laws. In place of that enforcement unit, Mr. Pruitt built a multi-million office to crusade against EPA’s public health and environmental safeguards.

Mr. Pruitt claims his assault on health safeguards is merely a matter of “reducing regulation.” But the rules he sued to overturn are designed to give flexibility to the states and to industry. (See examples here and here.) The trend since the era of President George H.W. Bush has been away from command-and-control regulation and toward flexible rules that give businesses the freedom to deploy least-cost solutions while meeting protective environmental standards. That is how EPA and a bipartisan Congress solved the acid rain crisis that was killing the lakes and forests of the eastern United States.

In a 2014 New York Times investigation, Mr. Pruitt was revealed to be part of an “unprecedented, secretive” alliance with top energy producers. The arrangements involved the funneling of campaign contributions to attorneys general who participated in a series of coordinated attacks on clean air protections – with Pruitt, for example, taking an energy lobbyist’s letter in opposition to EPA pollution limits, copying it onto state government stationery, and sending it to Washington under his own signature. When confronted with these findings, Mr. Pruitt doubled down, saying “That’s actually called representative government in my view of the world.”

Mr. Pruitt is not aiming for a subtle course correction in EPA’s work. If his political career is any guide, he will be focused on gaining attention by radically transforming EPA from its historical mission – carried out by Republican and Democratic administrations alike – to ensure that America’s air and water is safe. If confirmed to lead the agency, his tenure will be marked by attacks on clean air and water as well as legal and political turmoil. The ultimate result will likely be an increase in pollution – and world that’s less safe and less healthy for our nation and our families.

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TOPICS: Clean Air Rules and Regulations, EPA, Mercury Poisoning, Oklahoma, Ozone, Politics