Quantcast

The Top-Down Contamination of the EPA

Insights + Opinion
President Donald Trump, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou break ground for a new factory and potential big pollution source on June 28, 2018. Andy Manis / Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

When former administrator Scott Pruitt stepped down and Andrew Wheeler took over, few who care about clean air, clean water and climate change actually thought things were going to get dramatically better at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Wheeler, after all, came to the job after working as a coal lobbyist and a legislative aide to one of Congress's most notorious climate deniers. Still, given that he'd actually begun his career as a special assistant in the EPA's Pollution Prevention and Toxics Office, it wasn't outlandish to wonder if Wheeler might represent at least some kind of improvement over his predecessor.


Short answer: He doesn't. As hard as it is to picture an EPA less willing to fight for public health and the environment than the one we endured under Pruitt, Wheeler's EPA is emerging as a credible candidate. As some of us suspected, the main difference between the two directors appears to be a matter of style. Whereas Pruitt's brand of corruption was bumbling and often transparently self-serving, Wheeler's is polished and insidious. But through their bad-faith actions, both men have been exceptional at perverting the agency's mission and cultivating mistrust among its staff.

According to emails and other internal EPA documents received earlier this month by the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin as part of a federal public records request, in 2018 Pruitt pressured EPA scientists to overlook their own informed opinions about smog pollution in order to pave the way for a heavily polluting and water-guzzling manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin. If built, the Foxconn flat-screen TV factory could have theoretically added 13,000 jobs to the area, burnishing the reputation of Governor Scott Walker — a friend to the Trump administration — at a crucial political moment in the governor's reelection campaign. (FWIW, Walker lost.)

EPA Administer Andrew Wheeler (left) and former administrator Scott Pruitt (right) at Wheeler's swearing-in ceremony.

EPA

The emails and other documents reveal that Pruitt sought to waive federal limits on smog pollution in the region, thus sparing Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company, the expense of instituting new pollution controls at its factory. They furthermore reveal that Pruitt expected his agency's experts to come up with data in support of the decision — which many of them felt they simply could not do. In the documents, demoralized scientists complain to one another about the inappropriateness of "[t]aking snippets of information out of context and not telling the whole story" and bemoan "intentional omissions" in studies being publicly released with the EPA's imprimatur. One scientist admits that she is "in disbelief" at being asked to endorse Pruitt's plan; a colleague replies that as an expert in the health effects of air pollution, he finds the decision "hard to digest and support." (Interestingly, this week the Trump administration appears to be backtracking on the sweetheart deal it offered Foxconn, in part because new data from the EPA show that the smog situation in southeastern Wisconsin is worsening, and that now would not be a good time to add another pollution source.)

Just one day before The New York Times published its account of this sordid episode, another story broke about mendacity at the EPA — this one concerning the agency's current director, whose testimony before Congress regarding the weakening of Obama-era fuel-efficiency standards is now under question. Defending the rollback to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April, Wheeler tried to downplay the sizable increase in emissions that it would bring. "I have been told by my staff that the CO2 reductions, the impact of the CO2 reductions are pretty similar to what the Obama administration proposal would have received under their — would have gotten under their proposal," he told the committee.

Now these same lawmakers are demanding more information from Wheeler to support that claim. In an official letter to Wheeler sent last Thursday, they accuse him of "mak[ing] assertions about the proposal that you must know do not reflect the views of EPA's expert staff," of "repeatedly mischaracteriz[ing] the emissions impact of the proposed rule" and of making public statements that have "deviated from the information that was provided to you and other EPA political appointees" by the agency's scientists and other experts.

They strongly imply that Wheeler's motivations for misleading Congress and the public are rooted in his desire to please the oil industry. "[It] is hard to discern any other purpose for the proposal," they write, "since no entity in the automotive industry has requested such an extreme rollback of the current vehicle economy and greenhouse gas standards ... The oil industry stands to reap the most benefit from the proposed rollback because Americans will be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more for gasoline in less efficient cars."

Taken together, these two developments paint a picture of an EPA where the science-backed opinions of career staff count for far less than the needs of corporate polluters. In March 2018 — before Pruitt resigned in disgrace — I wrote that there were basically two EPAs, a split reflecting "deep tensions within an agency that's currently torn between the best impulses of its hardworking scientists and the worst impulses of its administrator and his industry-coddling cronies." Fifteen months and one administrative shakeup later, the point still stands. Nothing has changed. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Worker spraying toxic pesticides or insecticides on corn plantation. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images

Poor people in developing countries are far more likely to suffer from exposure to pesticides classified as having high hazard to human health or the environment, according to new data that Unearthed analyzed.

Read More
Power to heat, to cool, to drive the world's industries. Renewables can supply it all. Jason Blackeye / Unsplash

By Paul Brown

Virtually all the world's demand for electricity to run transport and to heat and cool homes and offices, as well as to provide the power demanded by industry, could be met by renewable energy by mid-century.

Read More
Sponsored
Phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break, affect health in many ways. Tatyana Tomsickova Photography / Moment / Getty Images

By George Citroner

  • Exposure to phthalates was associated with autism traits in boys (but not girls) between ages 3 and 4 years, according to a new study.
  • However, the risk was diminished in women who took folic acid during their pregnancy.
  • This study is the first to find that folic acid supplements provide a protective effect from phthalates.

Exposure in the womb to a group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals called phthalates was associated with autism traits in boys (but not girls) between ages 3 and 4 years, according to a new study.

Read More
A coral and fish community at the Great Barrier Reef, northeast of Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia, on Aug. 28, 2018. Francois Gohier / VWPics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Researchers released a sobering study this week showing that all of the world's coral reefs may be lost to the climate crisis by 2100.

Read More
A three-year-old recently found a rare candy-pink grasshopper. Allison Barger

A rare pink grasshopper was discovered by a three-year-old exploring his Austin, Texas garden earlier this week. An image of the candy-colored insect was shared by the boy's mother Allison Barger, according to KXAN, an NBC affiliate.

Read More