For the past 1,040 days, Amy Brown has gotten up, gone to work, come home, and cooked dinner with bottled water. She has used bottled water to brush her teeth, to wash her dishes, to give to her two young children to drink.
In 2015, Brown and hundreds of other families across North Carolina received a letter from the state Department of Environmental Quality warning that their water could be contaminated with heavy metal from nearby coal ash pits. It has been over three years since Brown stopped drinking the well water that comes out of her tap out of fear for her family’s health.
So when Brown heard that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt had racked up over $90,000 on first class travel because of security risks that he attributed to the “toxic” political environment, she was stunned.
“It’s so insulting and a slap in the face, that he is above sitting with people who have questions, who might be the people who have been affected by his decisions,” Brown told ThinkProgress. “I wish that I could get away like that from my situation, but I don’t get a day off from living this nightmare.”
For Brown and others who live near environmental pollution, Pruitt’s reasoning for eschewing coach travel for first class rings hollow. While Pruitt has the option to move away from his perceived risk, they say, people who live near pollution aren’t afforded the same privilege — and under Pruitt and President Donald Trump’s deregulatory push, they worry that the environmental risks they face will only get worse.
“I think that feeling uncomfortable in coach is something that most parents living in environmental justice communities across this country would take any day over having their children exposed to toxic pollution,” Melissa Nootz, a mother who lived for five years near a designated Superfund site in Anaconda, Montana, told ThinkProgress.
While living in Anaconda, Nootz suffered two miscarriages; her young daughter later tested positive for lead in her blood. “I would rather fly coach and be a little uncomfortable and even have someone yell at me than to get that test back that shows that my daughter had lead in her blood,” she said. “Flying in coach and having someone yell at me, that’s a risk I could live with.”
Cleaning up sites with a history of legacy pollution, like the Superfund site in Anaconda, has been a focus for Pruitt since he began his tenure as administrator. In December, Pruitt released a list of “emphasis” Superfund sites that included Anaconda, which means he will receive regular updates on how the cleanup is going.
Despite a purported focus on legacy pollution, however, environmental enforcement actions have decreased under Pruitt’s leadership — according to a recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project, environmental enforcement under Pruitt has dropped 44 percent compared to previous administrators’ first years. And while Pruitt continues to spend taxpayer dollars on first class travel, round-the-clock security detail, and a soundproof phone booth for his office, the administration continues to target the EPA with deep budget cuts: under White House’s proposed budget for 2019, the EPA writ large would see its funding cut by 23 percent, with significant cuts to the agency’s enforcement programs.
“I think if we’re talking about risk, it’s important to remember that right now across this country children are living at risk with environmental pollution, and risks also associated with our changing climate,” Nootz said. “As parents, we can try to control what our kids are exposed to, but we cannot control the air they breathe and we expect our administration and elected officials to take action in ways that protect future generations.”
Since coming to the EPA last year, Pruitt has earned criticism from environmental and public health groups for his focus on easing environmental regulations on industry. Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA has issued 20 deregulatory actions, with around 50 more actions planned or under development. These include things like delaying implementation of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS), which set limits on the amount of mercury that power plants can emit, or reconsidering the agency’s coal ash disposal rule, which set the first-ever federal guidelines for coal ash disposal.
According to the EPA, Pruitt has been approached “numerous times” when traveling, “to the point of profanities being yelled at him.” Following those incidents, Pruitt’s around-the-clock security detail suggested that the administrator fly first class to avoid disgruntled protesters.
But to Alden Cleanthes, who lives in Hampton Roads, Virginia, being subjected to profanities hurled by someone upset with policy decisions pales in comparison to the risks that her family faces from air and water pollution.
“Is he afraid for his life when he sits in coach? Because I’m afraid for my life every time I think about whether the water is dirty and is going to make my son sick,” Cleanthes, whose son suffered from pancreatitis as an infant, most likely due to water pollution, told ThinkProgress. “If he is putting people’s lives in danger and that is making them angry, maybe he should face that.”