Scott Pruitt wants to move full steam ahead on his pro-industry agenda in 2018

Despite facing numerous investigations himself, EPA administrator cites poor leadership culture at agency.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of EPA, hopes to speed up the permitting process for industry in 2018. CREDIT: Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit
Scott Pruitt, administrator of EPA, hopes to speed up the permitting process for industry in 2018. CREDIT: Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to use metrics to gauge the weekly performance of every office at his agency. That would be good news if Pruitt’s intention was to measure how each EPA office is protecting the environment and public health to the best of its ability.

But the metrics to which Pruitt is referring will be used to measure how quickly the EPA is granting clean air and clean water permits to polluters. Pruitt wants to ensure industry is not having to wait long to get permission to conduct work that will likely have harmful effects on the environment.

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In an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, Pruitt accused EPA staffers of a “lack of energy and lack of commitment” to meeting the needs of industry stakeholders who have been pleading for more prompt action by the environmental agency.

“We have permits that literally are sitting on a shelf, and just sitting there because there’s just no attention, no leadership, no direction. It’s that simple,” the former Oklahoma attorney general told the newspaper. By permits, Pruitt means granting entities permission to pollute as long as the pollution meets agency standards.

In a presentation at an energy industry conference in Texas last fall, Pruitt told oil and gas officials that “regulatory uncertainty” for businesses and regulated industry “is the biggest reason why the U.S. economy isn’t growing faster.”

In the same interview with The Wall Street Journal, Pruitt said, along with implementing a metrics-based system for each EPA office, he wants to use his second year on the job to speed up the process for granting permits to polluters. “There’s tremendous opportunity to show really significant results to the American people in a really short time frame,” he said.

Pruitt was asked if his urgency was related to any future plans to leave the agency, perhaps to take over as U.S. attorney general if Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigns or is fired. The EPA administrator did not directly address the question. Instead, he brought his evangelical Christian beliefs into the equation. “What does it say in scripture? ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.’ And that’s what I’m doing,” he said.

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As Pruitt emphasizes his goal of improving the leadership at the EPA, the administrator himself is under investigation for his questionable conduct in the top role at the agency. Pruitt has attracted widespread scrutiny for alleged misuse of agency funds, potential violation of a lobbying law, and holding secret meetings with officials from the industries his agency is tasked with regulating.

Last week, for example, the EPA’s inspector general sent a letter to Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR) that his office has learned the Government Accountability Office has accepted a congressional request to review questions regarding the installation of a security booth in Pruitt’s office at the EPA’s headquarters building in Washington.

“Regarding your request that the [office of inspector general] review the administrator’s use of expenditures on a security booth, we have confirmed that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) accepted a congressional request to review appropriation law questions regarding the installation of the security booth. The GAO will be reviewing virtually the same scope of issues that we planned to examine,” EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins said in a January 10 letter to DeFazio.

In terms of assessing the leadership qualities of his top lieutenants, Pruitt’s hand-picked official to oversee the Superfund program failed to show up for a planned appearance before the House Environment and Commerce Committee. Albert Kelly, a close friend and financial patron of Pruitt, cited a “scheduling conflict” with Thursday’s hearing by the House committee on the future of the toxic waste cleanup program.

In a Wednesday news release, Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said Kelly’s decision not to tell Congress about his and Pruitt’s strategy for cleaning up the nation’s most toxic communities is irresponsible and evasive. “Most, if not all, members of the [House] committee represent districts where there are abandoned toxic waste dumps. They should press Kelly about what he’s done so far and his strategy to clean up these dangerous sites that millions of Americans live near,” Cook said.

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Pruitt put Kelly in charge of the Superfund program after he was banned for life from the banking industry. A consent order from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation showed that Kelly agreed last May to pay a fine of $125,000 over allegations that he violated federal banking laws as an executive at his family owned SpiritBank in Oklahoma, The Intercept reported last month. Kelly is forbidden from ever working in the banking and financial services industry again.

Kelly’s only connection to the EPA and the vital role it plays in protecting communities from pollution is his years-long relationship with Pruitt, according to Cook. Kelly and his bank gave Pruitt loans to purchase personal property and a controlling share of a minor league baseball team.

“In the Trump administration, people tend to fail upwards into positions they’re not qualified for at all — like Albert Kelly, friend of Secretary Pruitt who was banned from banking for life,” the Center for Biological Diversity noted in a tweet.

Superfund is one of the few programs that Pruitt has vowed to make a priority during his tenure as EPA administrator. Newspapers in states with large numbers of Superfund sites, however, have complained about the selection of Kelly to lead the program. “Even for Scott Pruitt, the chief vandal at the EPA, it was an extraordinary act of arrogance to appoint his personal banker, Albert Kelly, as Special Advisor in charge of Superfund,” the Newark Star-Ledger wrote in a staff editorial published on January 12.

Along with citing the Superfund program, Pruitt told The Wall Street Journal he plans to lead a “war on lead.”

However, the EPA has had a poor track record on fighting lead since Pruitt took over as administrator. In fact, even before he was sworn in, Pruitt demonstrated a lack of knowledge of lead poisoning. At his confirmation hearing, Pruitt told the Senate panel that he doesn’t “know about” the science of lead poisoning.

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In September, months after taking over the EPA, Pruitt announced his agency would postpone the compliance date by two years for new effluent limitations guidelines for coal-fired power plants that were issued in 2015. The Obama-era rules would limit the amount of toxins, including lead, that power plant operators can dump into waterways. Electric plants dump 64,400 pounds of lead into the country’s waterways every year. Lead has been linked to developmental and reproductive problems.

Pruitt is living up to his promise to reduce lead contamination in at least one way. In December, Pruitt sent a letter to municipalities inviting officials to meet about potential revisions the agency is considering to what’s known as the Lead and Copper Rule. The Obama administration accelerated the process for updating the rule following the Flint, Michigan, drinking water crisis, which started in 2014.

“Despite lead contaminated sites being an environmental threat to our country, EPA has not updated the Lead and Copper Rule in decades,” Pruitt said in a statement last month. “In keeping with our commitment to cooperative federalism, EPA is seeking input from state stakeholders on proposed revisions to properly address lead and ensure communities have access to safe drinking water.”