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EPA staffer tells coal industry she’s here for them

“We’ll do a lot more. We’re going to keep going.”

This Jan. 25, 2017 photo shows the Gallatin Fossil Plant in Gallatin, Tenn. Environmental groups are taking the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, to trial over whether waste from the coal-fired power plant near Nashville polluted the Cumberland River. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
This Jan. 25, 2017 photo shows the Gallatin Fossil Plant in Gallatin, Tenn. Environmental groups are taking the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, to trial over whether waste from the coal-fired power plant near Nashville polluted the Cumberland River. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

At a conference at Walt Disney World this week, EPA senior policy advisor Mandy Gunasekara told coal industry executives that she wants to make sure the EPA is working for them.

“I’m here to talk to you to make sure what we’re doing in D.C. is beneficial for you,” Gunasekara said Thursday, according to reporting from S&P Global, an energy trade publication. “If it’s not working, I want to hear about it so that we can work it out.”

Gunasekara was speaking at the Eastern Fuel Buyers Conference, which bills itself as “North America’s premier coal industry event” and brings together hundreds of coal company representatives.

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Gunasekara has been at the agency since March. For the past three years, she served as majority counsel for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairmen of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

During her talk, billed as a Town Hall with the EPA, Gunasekara lauded her boss, EPA head Scott Pruitt, and praised the work the agency has done so far in repealing environmental protections, which, she said, has been portrayed negatively by the media.

“The news was portraying that as something bad,” she said. “That we’re taking away environmental protections. That’s simply not true, we’re rooting out what is superfluous and what is not necessary to actually achieve meaningful environmental protection… They were portraying it as something bad. I was like ‘Wow, we’ve done 23. That’s pretty good.’ We’ll do a lot more. We’re going to keep going.”

Among the actions reversed under the new administration are a rule to prevent coal companies from dumping mountaintop removal debris into waterways and a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands.

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“Now I’m at the EPA, I’m in a position where I can make a big difference and do things to help out and tear back the problems that stemmed from decisions of the last administration,” Gunasekara said. But coal executives and industry experts suggest that rolling back regulations won’t keep the lights on for coal communities. Pressure from natural gas, solar, and wind generation, along with automation in the industry, has been more responsible for the decline in coal than regulation. President Trump has repeatedly said that he will bring back coal jobs.

Gunasekara also hit at the environmental groups that have pushed the EPA to more stringently regulate things like air and water pollution. Being sued by groups like the Sierra Club is “a big problem,” she said.

The Sierra Club lost no time responding to the EPA staffer’s blatantly pro-coal messaging.

“Scott Pruitt and his hand-picked staff are no longer even lying about it: they are clear that their only priority is to help corporate polluters,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement. “By letting the fossil fuel industry take over the EPA, Pruitt and his staff are draining the swamp and replacing it with a coal ash pond.”

“The mission of the EPA is to safeguard human health and the environment, not to coddle the coal industry, but Scott Pruitt and his staff are betraying that critical duty in order to trash our air and water while fossil fuel executives count their money,” Brune said.

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In addition following directives from the coal, oil, and natural gas industries, Pruitt has repeatedly claimed that human activity is not responsible for climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. Ironically, Gunasekara claimed the agency would be more science-based now.

“We’re supposed to be working in the world of realistic technical assumptions and scientific understanding,” Gunasekara said. “There shouldn’t be a lot of subjectivity and discretion in that, but there has been. We are working to address that.”