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"A devastating report in The New York Times details the extraordinary and unprecedented steps Pruitt is taking to keep secret his efforts to roll back decades of progress on drinking water and air quality, toxic chemicals in consumer products, and environmental justice." ( Photo: Victoria Pickering/flickr/cc)

Scott Pruitt Is Turning the EPA into the KGB

Scott Pruitt, polluters’ puppet and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, knows most Americans are strongly opposed to his anti-public health, anti-kids, anti-science agenda. That’s why he does all he can to hide it.

A devastating report in The New York Times details the extraordinary and unprecedented steps Pruitt is taking to keep secret his efforts to roll back decades of progress on drinking water and air quality, toxic chemicals in consumer products, and environmental justice. Among the revelations uncovered by reporters Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton:

  • According to current EPA employees, when summoned to meetings with Administrator Pruitt, staff must “have an escort to gain entrance” to his office, are “told to leave behind their cellphones” and “are sometimes told not to take notes.”
  • Wherever he goes, “even at E.P.A. headquarters,” Pruitt is “accompanied by armed guards, the first head of the agency to ever request round-the-clock security.”
  • In an apparent effort to block any trail of communications with industry officials that could be captured in a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request, Pruitt “often makes important phone calls from other offices rather than use the phone in his office.”

The inescapable conclusion, says David Roberts of Vox, is that Pruitt’s stealth is “the only approach possible to advance an agenda that is unpopular and intellectually indefensible.”

The Times reports that in the last two months, the EPA “has received more than 2,000 Freedom of Information requests, many of them focused on Mr. Pruitt, asking for every possible record related to his tenure, including text messages, telephone records and even his web browsing history.”

EWG and our colleagues at American Oversight are among the public interest groups that have filed many of the FOIAs seeking details about Pruitt’s communications with polluters. 

In April, EWG and American Oversight filed a FOIA with the EPA and the Department of Agriculture, demanding all communications between agency officials, pesticide manufacturers, and outside groups that have advocated for the continued use of chlorpyrifos – a neurotoxic pesticide known to cause brain damage in children – on food crops. This came in response to Pruitt’s alarming decision to summarily reverse a scheduled ban of the pesticide that was set into motion by the Obama administration. In June, EWG and American Oversight filed a lawsuit against Pruitt and the EPA for failing to produce those records.

Pruitt’s action went against the recommendations of the EPA’s own scientists, as well as many public health experts, including leading pediatricians. He said his decision to overrule those experts and the mountain of scientific research documenting the risks chlorpyrifos poses to kids was based on a solitary report by the Department of Agriculture, an agency that consistently supports the interests of industrial agriculture.

EWG and American Oversight will not let up the pressure on Pruitt to turn over those records.

Another EPA initiative targeted in Pruitt’s stealth attack is a rule to reduce agricultural and industrial pollution in the drinking water of millions of Americans. Pruitt is leading the Trump administration’s effort to roll back the Clean Water Rule, which would have extended water protections to smaller water sources, such as streams and wetlands that feed into major water sources like the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. 

EWG analyzed the EPA’s own data showing that 117 million Americans get at least some of their drinking water from the areas that would have seen additional protections under the proposal that Pruitt has targeted for destruction.

An exhaustive economic impact analysis by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers estimated the proposed rule would bring economic benefits of between $550 million and $572 million. That figure is much larger than the costs to agriculture and real estate, the two leading industries opposed to the initiative, according to the Times.

As Pruitt prepared to pull the plug on the Clean Water Rule, EPA staff were verbally asked (not in writing, of course) to quickly rewrite the analysis and delete the parts that, according to the Times, “stripped away the half-billion-dollar economic benefits associated with protecting wetlands.”

Elizabeth Southerland, who recently resigned as a top water official at the EPA in protest of Pruitt’s agenda after 30 years of service, told the Times:

Typically there are huge written records, weighing in on the scientific facts, the technology facts and the economic facts. Everything’s in writing. This repeal process is political staff giving verbal directions to get the outcome they want, essentially overnight.

There’s more: Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA no longer requires the oil and gas industry to report annual pollution emissions information, has deleted volumes of climate change data from the agency’s website, fired outside science advisers, watered down regulations for toxic chemicals and got President Trump to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate pact.

EWG has spent the last 25 years dragging government and industry data into the public square: naming every farm subsidy recipient, the pesticides the USDA finds on produce, and the toxic chemicals used as ingredients in cosmetics, food and cleaners – all of which are rarely disclosed.

“When Scott Pruitt’s time at the EPA ends, he has a bright future lecturing on the anti-democratic art of quashing scientific research, silencing scientists and keeping taxpayers in the dark about battering their health,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “While much of President Trump’s agenda is firmly in the hands of the inept, his EPA chief is mowing down the country’s public health and environmental protections with ruthless abandon. Along the way, he’s doing all he can to shield his actions from the eyes of the American people.”

“The public deserves to know exactly how its government is responding to health threats from pollution,” Cook said. “It is outrageous that Pruitt and President Trump are using taxpayer dollars to protect polluters from the damage they’ve caused, but that’s exactly what’s happening.”

Alex Formuzis

Alex Formuzis is vice president of media relations for Environmental Working Group.

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