In 2005, former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson (D) filed a lawsuit against 14 poultry firms — including Tyson Foods, the largest meat processing company in the world — arguing that they were not holding up their end of a 2003 agreement aimed at reducing pollution into Oklahoma’s northeastern Illinois River.
That lawsuit was brought to federal court in 2009, with both sides resting after 52 days of arguments. The trial ended in February of 2010 — just months before Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took over as Oklahoma Attorney General.
Despite Pruitt’s claims that states are best positioned to be the arbitrators of air and water protections, there has never been a decision on the Oklahoma poultry pollution lawsuit because Pruitt never took further action on the case, despite some clear evidence that the Illinois River suffered from agricultural-related pollution.
Instead of pursuing a resolution in court, Pruitt sidestepped the lawsuit. Two years later, when presented with a chance to deepen Oklahoma’s 2003 phosphorous pollution requirements, Pruitt chose instead to conduct a three year-long study into the problem. As part of that study, Oklahoma agreed to suspend the deadline for compliance with its phosphorus pollution limits.
The final report, released in December of this year, found that the state of Oklahoma had based its 2003 limits off the best available science. Put another way, the state’s chief law enforcement officer stalled state anti-pollution efforts for three years, conducting a study to reaffirm what the state already knew — while water quality in the Illinois watershed continued to fall short of state standards.
“Regulation through litigation is wrong in my view,” Pruitt said in an interview with the Oklahoman newspaper in 2015, explaining why his office chose not to pursue the case further. “That was not a decision my office made. It was a case we inherited.”
But legal experts and environmental advocates say Pruitt’s decision not to follow through on the poultry pollution lawsuit is evidence of his deference to polluting industries at the expense of the environment — a consistent thread in his continued opposition to the agency he now wants to head.
“This isn’t about regulation by litigation, this is about law enforcement,” Valerie Baron, Equal Justice Works Law Fellow at Natural Resources Defense Council, told ThinkProgress. “Pruitt’s actions speak very loud and clear. This is really, at its heart, about enforcing the law. Pruitt was the state’s chief law enforcement officer and he showed that he would rather polluters dictate their own terms rather than hold them accountable.”
Stalling on enforcement
In 1993, Oklahoma began gathering data on water pollution — especially phosphorus, which is found in high amounts in chicken manure. That data was compiled into a report, released in 1996, which found that phosphorus and other nutrients in the Illinois River were feeding algal blooms and endangering Lake Tenkiller, a reservoir in Oklahoma fed by the Illinois River. In 2003, as a result of that study, Oklahoma and Arkansas agreed to work together to reduce nutrient pollution in the Illinois River watershed, setting a goal of reducing phosphorus pollution by 40 percent.
Two years later, however, Edmondson filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that several poultry firms were not doing enough to help stop nutrient pollution from entering into Oklahoma’s waterways. The lawsuit claimed that there were 2,363 chicken houses in the Illinois watershed, and that those chicken houses produced enough manure to equal the waste from 10.7 million people per year.
That waste was then being spread onto farmland in the watershed — and while chicken manure is a great fertilizer, if too much is spread onto a small area, the ground can become saturated with nutrients, meaning things like phosphorus and nitrogen can easily wash into waterways during precipitation events.
The lawsuit stalled in federal court as Pruitt took office in 2010. But in 2012, just as the initial 2003 phosphorus reduction agreement was set to expire, Arkansas regulators issued a report questioning Oklahoma’s phosphorus standards. In response, Pruitt got Arkansas to agree to let a researcher at Baylor University study the phosphorus levels in the Illinois River watershed. That study, which concluded in December of this year, found that Oklahoma’s phosphorus standards had been based on the best available science. Based on the results of that study, it’s unlikely Oklahoma’s phosphorus limits will be weakened, a Pruitt spokesperson told E&E News.
Critics argue that Pruitt basically spent three years studying an issue that had already been resolved years before — effectively slowing down the rate of improvement in phosphorus pollution of the Illinois River. And while phosphorus levels in the Illinois River have declined in recent years, the bulk of that improvement happened before Pruitt even took office.
A friend of industry
Pruitt’s stated reason for not pursuing the poultry lawsuit further was his insistence that regulation should not be decided through litigation — an interesting line of reasoning from a man who has been party to more than a dozen lawsuits against the EPA aimed at rolling back pollution regulations. But as the Environmental Working Group points out in an investigation released January 14, Pruitt might have had more than philosophical reasons for quietly letting the lawsuit against major poultry firms languish in court: political donations.
According to the EWG report, executives of the poultry companies named in the 2005 lawsuit, as well as the companies’ lawyers, gave more than $40,000 to Pruitt’s campaign for Attorney General in 2010. Moreover, more than 90 percent of those contributions came from people living in Arkansas — an interesting phenomenon for a state-wide political race.
“Scott Pruitt has said that he chose not to pursue that case because he felt like it was regulation through litigation,” Kristen van de Biezenbos, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, told ThinkProgress. “I suspect that Scott Pruitt felt that it would set a bad precedent — he doesn’t want to be seen as someone that is anti-agriculture, which is the other big industry here in Oklahoma.”
The poultry lawsuit is not the only example of litigation that mixes Pruitt’s role as Attorney General with donors to his political campaigns and political action committees (PACs). According to the New York Times, Pruitt filed 14 cases as Oklahoma Attorney General challenging federal environmental regulations; in 13 of those cases, co-parties on the lawsuit had contributed money either to Pruitt’s political campaigns or a Pruitt-affiliated PAC.
As president of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), Pruitt worked to increase donations from fossil fuel companies and organizations. Under his tenure, the American Petroleum Institute — the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry — as well as fossil fuel giants like ConocoPhillips, Alpha Natural Resources, and American Electric Power all joined the Republican Attorneys General Association.
With large donations coming in from fossil fuel companies and organizations, Pruitt helped found the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a spin-off of RAGA billed as a nonprofit “public policy organization for issues relevant to the nation’s Republican attorneys generals.” Because of its status as a nonprofit, it is not required to disclose the names of its donors — though it has received at least $175,000 from Freedom Partners, the super PAC founded by petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch.
Pruitt’s work bringing in fossil fuel donations for both the Republican Attorneys General Association and the Rule of Law Defense Fund coincides with a number of complaints Pruitt sent to the EPA on behalf of the oil and gas industry.
Documents obtained by the New York Times during a 2014 investigation reveal the level of coordination between officials from major energy companies — like Devon Energy, the largest energy company in Oklahoma — and Pruitt’s office. In one instance, officials from Devon Energy appear to have drafted a letter that Pruitt then sent, on Oklahoma State Attorney General letterhead, along with his signature, to the EPA. The draft and the final letter sent by Pruitt are nearly indistinguishable.
In another instance, Devon Energy asked Pruitt to send a letter expressing his concern about the Interior Department’s plan to regulate methane from fracking operations on federal lands. Again, Pruitt sent a letter, on Oklahoma State Attorney General letterhead, that was a near replica of the letter drafted by Devon Energy.
Devon Energy to Pruitt: Can you please intervene with Interior Secretary too to fight fed fracking rule. (Just insert your name here) Done. pic.twitter.com/vq092n7zaT
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) January 17, 2017
At the time, the New York Times described Pruitt’s relationship with fossil fuel companies as an “unprecedented, secretive alliance,” created to “push back against the Obama regulatory agenda.”
“Scott Pruitt is notorious for being willing to act as a mouthpiece for the oil and gas industry of Oklahoma in resisting federal regulations,” van de Biezenbos said.
Cutting enforcement, boosting federalism
Before Pruitt became Oklahoma Attorney General in 2010, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office had an Environmental Protection Unit, which investigated environmental crimes like illegal dumping and contamination from refineries. In 2010, the budget for that office was $532,000 — beginning in 2010, that budget fell sharply, declining to $97,000 in 2012 and $0 in 2015.
At the same time, Pruitt created something under the office of the solicitor general known as the Federalism Unit, aimed at handling challenges to federal regulations. In 2010, the budget for the office of the solicitor general was $0; by 2016, it had increased to $3.6 million.
NRDC’s Baron worries that Pruitt’s past dismantling of the state’s specialized environmental enforcement unit does not bode well for his concept of environmental enforcement as EPA administrator.
“It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the unique nature of environmental enforcement, and that is a dangerous perspective to have in the head of the EPA,” Baron said. “The unit that he dismantled was created, in part, to address the extremely technical nature of environmental enforcement, and he zeroed out that budget for environmental law and instead focused his attention on attacking EPA, the very agency that he now seeks to run.”