Environmental opposition mounts against EPA boss nominee; clean air, water protections at risk, scientists say

by James F. MaCarty, originally posted on January 17, 2017


CLEVELAND, Ohio – Environmentalists, scientists and U.S. Senate Democrats are mustering opposition in preparation for Wednesday’s scheduled confirmation hearings for U.S. EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt.

Few federal agencies have a more direct impact on our lives, overseeing laws governing clean air, water and soil.

And few cabinet nominees since the notorious Secretary of the Interior James Watt more than 30 years ago have arrived on Capitol Hill with such controversial credentials.

Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma, is an avowed climate change denier with close ties to the oil and gas industry. He has sued the EPA 14 times in attempts to block the very air, water and climate regulations he would be in charge of enforcing if he receives Senate confirmation.

He has worked hand-in-hand with energy industry lobbyists to oppose federal clean-air regulations. And he has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from executives and lawyers from the agriculture, oil and gas companies he was entrusted with policing.

A prominent army of opponents is organizing a counter-offensive to make sure that doesn’t happen. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists have both called for Pruitt to be rejected.

On Thursday, a delegation of scientists¬†delivered a letter signed by 102 scientists, doctors and engineers from Ohio to the office of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, urging him to oppose Pruitt’s nomination.

Portman’s vote is considered a key to deciding the issue in a closely-divided Senate, said Veronica Vieland, director of the Battelle Center for Mathematical Medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.

“Mr. Pruitt has spent his career challenging and undermining public health protections and critical science-based standards,” the letter read. “We need an EPA administrator who will adhere to the science and preserve these protections rather than erode them to the benefit of industry.”

A Portman spokesman was noncommittal last night.

“Rob is carefully considering all of the nominees, meeting with them personally as they undergo a rigorous evaluation process,” said spokesman Kevin Smith.

Pruitt’s supporters include a coalition of 23 conservative advocacy groups who last week sent a letter of endorsement to the Senate, while criticizing the current state of the EPA.

“Some claim that Mr. Pruitt opposes clean air and water. This could not be further than the truth,” the letter read. “Mr. Pruitt respects and upholds the Constitution, and understands that many of the nation’s challenges regarding clean air and water are best met at the state and local level.”

At the same time Pruitt is waiting at the door to the EPA, Congress has taken action behind closed doors to gut critical public health laws that reduce carbon pollution from vehicles, oil and gas infrastructure, power plants and other sources, former EPA administrator Carol Browner told the Public News Service in Columbus.

The Midnight Rule Relief Act, which passed the House last week, could eliminate with a single vote any rule finalized in the last several months by President Obama, she said.

“They’re doing it in a way that’s hard to follow,” Browner said. “It’s hard for the public to really see what’s happening, and I think that’s intentional because people like clean air and clean water. They don’t want those safeguards rolled back, even if Congress wants them rolled back.”

She’s withholding judgment on Pruitt if he wins confirmation.

“We all believed in the mission of the agency, we believed it was our job to protect the health of the American people, and I certainly hope that Mr. Pruitt will find it within himself to share that,” Browner told Public News Service.

Few of Pruitt’s opponents, however, are so optimistic. If confirmed, they expect him to bring a radical shift in EPA policies to Washington by shelving the Obama administration’s aggressive environmental enforcement and embracing the industries the agency is charged with policing.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, told the New York Times that Pruitt is the first EPA nominee from either party that his group has opposed in its 50-year history.

“The president’s choices deserve a lot of deference from Congress and even environmental groups,” Krupp said. “But at some point when the nominee has spent his entire career attempting to dismantle environmental protections, it becomes unacceptable.”

The potential for major damaging impact is great for Northeast Ohio, where much of the effects of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the EPA’s ban of the pesticide DDT can be seen all around us:

  • The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is one of the most visited parks in the nation, and is home to once-rare river otters and beavers, bald eagles and ospreys, coyotes and turkeys;
  • Endangered raptors have benefited the most from the ban on DDT;
  • In 2016, there were 207 eagle nests in Ohio, compared to four nests in 1978. Those nests produced an estimated 327 young eagles last year;
  • Prior to 1988, peregrine falcons had been extirpated from the Eastern U.S. But since then, a reintroduction program has been so successful that, by 2014, there were at least 34 nesting pairs of peregrines statewide;
  • The Coliseum Grasslands are one of the best spots in the state to see bobolinks, Henslow’s sparrows and other threatened grassland species;
  • Black bears and bobcats are becoming more common, and walleye are showing up again in the Cuyahoga River as the water quality gradually improves;
  • Last April, David Berg of Mentor caught a state record yellow perch – 2.86 pounds! – and charter boat captains reported one of their best fishing seasons in more than a decade;
  • Federal funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative are being used to eradicate phragmites and other invasive vegetation from the Mentor Marsh and Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve;
  • The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has embarked on a $3 billion master plan called Project Clean Lake, constructing a network of seven tunnels designed to eliminate an estimated 4.5 billion gallons of raw sewage from flowing into Lake Erie and area streams after heavy rains. Completion is expected by 2036.

Maintaining and improving upon these environmental accomplishments would be threatened under the EPA leadership of Pruitt, according to the letter submitted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Pruitt’s record shows that he simply won’t do the job, and his confirmation would pose a threat to public health,” the letter said.

The scientists note that just two laws enforced by the EPA–the Cross State Air Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule–will save Ohio an estimated $32 billion in health costs per year, and prevent up to 3,900 premature deaths.

“Yet Pruitt has sued the EPA to block these rules, and has consistently opposed the EPA’s ability to enforce laws that keep Ohio’s air and drinking water safe,” the letter reads.

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