Since assuming office in late February, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has spent upwards of $900,000 of taxpayer dollars on extraneous expenses, including round-the-clock personal security, private chartered and military flights, and a soundproof booth for his office.
Such spending offers a stark contrast to the rhetoric of the former Oklahoma attorney general, who is a staunch proponent of small government and fiscal conservatism. Moreover, since coming to the agency, Pruitt has publicly espoused a philosophy of deep austerity for the EPA, arguing that the agency should work to do more with less by partnering more efficiently with state agencies and private industry. He defended the Trump administration’s proposed 31 percent cut to the agency, telling members of Congress that he feels the EPA can “fulfill the mission of our agency with a trim budget.” And he’s championed cutting programs he deems a waste of taxpayer dollars, like spending less than $15,000 for 37 employees to use a private gym for a year — at an average cost of $34/month per person. Pruitt ended that program in April of this year, saying that “it was quite something to hear about that.”
But it’s not just gym memberships that are on the chopping block in Pruitt’s EPA: The Trump administration’s proposed budget call for deep cuts to programs in everything from environmental enforcement to environmental justice, programs funded by grants and research that often carry a much lower price-tag that Pruitt’s private flights and security.
For $900,000, for instance, the EPA could fund at least 30 projects through the Environmental Justice Small Grants program to help vulnerable communities deal with environmental issues. Past projects include community education programs about air pollution, weatherizing homes for better energy efficiency in low-income communities, and testing drinking wells for contamination in rural areas. It could also easily pay for the $544,000 Superfund portion of the EPA’s Environmental Justice program, which focuses on environmental issues facing low-income and minority communities that live near extremely polluted Superfund sites.
Both of those programs were cut entirely under the Trump budget. The House budget, which is expected to be taken up by the Senate in October, cuts funding to the overall environmental justice program by $1 million, but the specific programmatic cuts have not yet been identified. The House budget restored some funding to the EPA — over Pruitt’s objection — but still cuts the agency by 6.5 percent, a 20 percent decrease since Republicans took control of the House in 2010.
The $900,000 in taxpayer dollars that Pruitt spent on private travel, security, and a soundproof booth for his office could almost have paid for the entire South Florida Geographic Initiative, which funds water monitoring programs in sensitive South Florida ecosystems like the Everglades and the Florida Keys. Marine scientists worry that the Everglades are especially vulnerable in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which caused widespread destruction to seagrass beds in the area. That program is entirely cut in both the Trump and House budgets.
Pruitt’s expenses could have paid for for several climate and science programs that were completely zeroed out in the Trump administration’s proposed budget, such as the Office of Science and Technology’s $209,000 program to reduce risks from indoor air pollution, or the $172,000 Radon Program, which helps study the public health impacts of the lung cancer-causing radon gas in homes.
It could almost pay for the $1,172,000 Science Policy and Biotechnology program in Pesticides Licensing that the administration proposed eliminating. That program provides scientific and policy expertise about pesticides and toxic chemicals — the kind of science that helped the EPA identify the widely-used pesticide chlorpyrifos as capable of causing brain damage in children. (Despite internal research, Pruitt decided to reject calls to ban the pesticide in March.) His superfluous spending would nearly cover the administration’s proposed $977,000 cut to the Office of Science and Technology’s pesticide program meant to protect human health and ecosystems from the impact of pesticides.
It would pay for the administration’s proposed cuts to the EPA’s Superfund program, which deals with cleaning up some of the nation’s most toxic sites — places like former munitions plants or lead factories, where pollution is so bad that the surrounding air, water, and soil poses a threat to human health. Pruitt has said that cleaning up Superfund sites is a major priority of his, but the Trump budget proposes a $406,000 cut to the program’s emergency preparedness program, which helps the agency respond to discharges or releases from Superfund sites caused by natural or environmental disasters. Earlier this month in Houston, flooding from Hurricane Harvey inundated at least seven Superfund sites in the area.
Pruitt’s taxpayer-funded spending could have paid for a slew of EPA grants, from a grant meant to help tribal communities adapt to climate change ($600,000), to grants meant to help rural and tribal communities along the border access clean drinking water ($870,000). It could pay for grants under the EPA’s Nonpoint Source Program, which helps state and tribal partners create and implement programs meant to clean up polluted or degraded rivers, creeks, streams, and wetlands (one grant, issued in 2016, gave Alabama $255,000 to clean up Black Branch and Cane Creek, which had been listed as degraded waterways since 1998).
It would pay 30 times over for a $30,000 grant awarded to Cleveland State University in 2015 to help fund water pollution research. And it would be enough to fund a $125,000 grant awarded to the Alaskan village of Port Heiden, an indigenous community threatened by climate change-fueled sea level rise and coastal erosion, more than seven times.
Pruitt’s use of taxpayer funds has come under scrutiny before — he’s already being investigated by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General over whether he misused taxpayer dollars for his frequent trips home to Oklahoma. According to EPA records and travel stubs, Pruitt spent 43 days in a three-month period traveling back to his home state, running up a tab of $12,000. On Wednesday, three Democratic lawmakers on the Energy and Commerce Committee the EPA to extend its investigation to Pruitt’s use of taxpayer dollars for private and military flights, calling it “just the latest example of repeated and blatant abuse of taxpayer funds by the Trump administration.”