Commentary: De-coding Pruitt

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Cutting through the rhetoric: an annotated guide to Scott Pruitt’s first EPA address.

March 3, 2017

By Phil Brown, Sara Wylie, Christopher Sellers
Environmental Health News 

New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made his first address on Feb. 21 to the agency he’ll now run. And it was what he didn’t say that was most telling.
Significantly he ignored the EPA’s history and obligations of its mission, the many programs it runs and federal laws it enforces. EPA’s charge of protecting human health and the environment went totally unmentioned.

Instead, Pruitt spent the majority of his time talking about books molded by conservative political theory, never alluding to a single environmental book or hero. Pruitt’s speech neglected to acknowledge how dependent the agency’s mission has been—and continues to be—on science, scientists, and evidence, its chief windows into what environmental impacts actually are, and how they should be addressed.

We at the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) think words matter. Our team—an international network of academics, researchers—decoded Pruitt’s first speech and created an annotated commentary alongside it. It is available here. 

What did we find? Here are a few examples of EDGI’s decoding: When Pruitt stated “I know it’s very difficult to capture in one speech the vision and direction of an agency,” we note that the EPA website actually accomplishes this in a single sentence: "The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment," yet nowhere in the speech is there any mention of "health," human or ecological.

He ignored the EPA’s history and obligations of its mission, the many programs it runs and federal laws it enforces.And when Pruitt talked about “intractability” on “the role between the federal government and the states,” EDGI notes that the EPA was necessary because of how poorly some states were handling their own pollution problems, as well as how water and air pollution kept spilling beyond the bounds of individual states.

Pruitt’s declaration that “regulation exists to give certainty to the regulated” ignored the frequent failures of businesses and markets either to acknowledge or address their environmental impacts.

Pruitt’s remarks argued that “regulation through litigation” is wrong, yet as Oklahoma's Attorney General, Pruitt repeatedly sued the EPA. In Pruitt’s remarks that EPA should be “pro-energy” EDGI notes that EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment; it has no statutory directive to facilitate energy production.

When Pruitt walked up to the podium at noon of February 21, 2017, he paid no heed to what the EPA has done for our nation:

• Ban deadly lead in gasoline
• Interpret and implement the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to clean up Superfund sites leaking dangerous contaminants into air, water and soil
• Enforce the Clean Air Act by curbing toxic chemicals in air
• Follow through on statutory responsibilities under the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts to provide safe drinking water
• Educate children and adults alike via its rich website of information, and fund environmental education programs
• Provide a Toxics Release Inventory so people could learn what pollutants most threaten their communities
• Help make environmental justice a household word by special grants, regional offices throughout the country devoted to environmental equity, a program especially to serve Native American tribes, and development of more cumulative approaches to risk assessment
• Publicly fund research involving thousands of investigations that have advanced collective scientific knowledge about human and environmental health
• Conduct its own research into the many scientific questions—providing answers vital to fulfilling its statutory obligations, on topics ranging from chemical and metal toxicity to the feasibility of control technologies.

Perhaps most importantly given Pruitt’s pro-industry stance is just how many of these achievements have involved confronting, challenging, and changing the behavior of privately run for-profit industries. The historical record is clear: without public oversight and regulation, private businesses can devastate communities near and far; they can leave places uninhabitable and even threaten the ecological stability of our entire planet.

In the absence of market solutions to industrial threats to human and environmental health, the EPA has stepped in to decipher the nature and extent of this damage, and to control or repair it to the best of human ability. But with Pruitt at the helm and looming cuts, the EPA’s ability to protect our health is under threat.

The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative is addressing potential threats to federal environmental and energy policy, and to the scientific research infrastructure, by archiving public environmental data and ensuring its continued publicly availability.

We also monitor and will analyze changes to federal regulation, enforcement, research, funding, websites and general agency management at agencies including the EPA, Department of Energy, NASA, NOAA, and OSHA.

Serving the environmental community and its allies in these ways, we aim to enable them better to hold the new administration accountable for public access to at-risk government environmental data, documents, and digital interfaces, and for detrimental changes they may pursue to federal environmental agencies laws.

The scores of volunteer collaborators and hundreds of local contributors that make up EDGI grew rapidly in the days after the election, bringing together experts, volunteers, non-profits, universities and companies who believe that science and data are vital for environmental governance. Our initiative exemplifies just one of many ways that the environmental community can rouse itself anew to push back against the dismantling of environmental protections.
 

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

 

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