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Trump’s EPA Pick Suggests Federal Role in Bay is Just “Informational”

The Denver Post

Last week, the U.S. Senate held a confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt.

Maryland Senator Ben Cardin questioned Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General and anti-regulatory activist who, seven years ago, filed a legal action against EPA to challenge the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. Cardin, a Democrat, wanted to know whether Pruitt, a Republican, would actually enforce the bay cleanup agreement as EPA Administrator.

The 2010 agreement between EPA and six Chesapeake region states is called the Bay “Total Maximum Daily Load” or TMDL, and it threatens federal penalties against states that do not meet goals of reducing their nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by about a quarter.

Here’s Cardin: “If you are confirmed, will you support the federal role in the Chesapeake Bay program as envisioned by the partners, the stakeholders, in enforcing the TMDL’s, if necessary?”

Pruitt’s response seemed to say one thing, but actually was carefully worded to express the opposite.

“I really commend the six states that joined together to address the Chesapeake Bay, and to try to set levels for both point source and nonpoint source type of discharge into the Chesapeake Bay,” Pruitt said. “There was some concerns about the precedent – the role the EPA was playing initially. But through their litigation, the EPA has acknowledged that their role is more informational.”

I’m going to stop the tape at that last word: “informational.” What Pruitt was saying is that, in his view, it is not EPA's role to actually penalize states that fail to meet their pollution limits. EPA’s job, in his mind, is more passive: It is supposed to just provide information to the states, and let them work it out.

That theory fits Pruitt’s political views about states’ rights. But it’s not what the courts concluded, in ruling against Pruitt and the American Farm Bureau’s challenge of the Bay cleanup plan. And Pruitt’s attitude, as EPA Administrator, could undermines the whole point of the 2010 bay TMDL agreement.

Pruitt performed a similar linguistic sleight of hand when Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey quizzed him. Booker, a Democrat, asked Pruitt why he had filed several lawsuits against EPA on behalf of Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry, but no lawsuits against these polluters on behalf of the thousands of children in Oklahoma suffering from asthma because of the industry’s air pollution.

Booker asked: “I want to know what actions you’ve taken in the past six years, in your capacity as the protector of Oklahoma citizens, to protect the welfare of those 111,000 children.”

Pruitt’s response: “Senator, I’ve actually provided a list to the chairman of the committee with respect to enforcement – the steps we’ve taken in multiple pieces of environmental litigation.”

That sounds good. But what Pruitt did not mention is that none of the lawsuits on his list were efforts to stop air pollution – or pollution of any kind. Pruitt did sue the Phillips 66 oil company for double-billing taxpayers and insurance companies for the cost of cleaning up gasoline that leaked from service station tanks. But that was a financial fraud case, not an action to actually clean up pollution.

On the question of climate change, Pruitt said that global warming is not a “hoax” – contradicting Trump’s position. But Pruitt’s statement was also carefully ambiguous.

“I believe the ability to measure with precision, the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate, is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to it,” Pruitt said.

The last part of his sentence suggests that scientists still don’t really know whether pollution causes global warming – which is factually incorrect. 

In its drive to de-regulate, the Trump Administration seems intent to first repeal the distinction between clarity and fog, fact and fiction.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.