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30-Year EPA Veteran Writes Farewell Letter, Warns of Environmental Catastrophe Under Pruitt

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Irma Omerhodzic

A 30-year U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) senior official left federal service Tuesday convinced that her agency is being steered in a disastrously wrong direction, according to her farewell message posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). She is an eyewitness to the wreckage wreaked by Administrator Scott Pruitt and his cadre of political appointees.


Elizabeth "Betsy" Southerland has a Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering and has worked in both the private sector and state government. At EPA, she served in both the water and Superfund programs as a senior executive, managing first as a division director in both programs and then as the director of the Office of Science and Technology in the Office of Water. In 2015, she received the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award.

Her farewell message to her colleagues warned that Pruitt:

  • Has "repeals of 30 rules under consideration," most of which aim at "industry deregulation" of an array of toxic substances and practices that can threaten human health;
  • Seeks "abandonment of the polluter pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes"; and
  • Is pursuing policies that promise to repeat human health and environmental catastrophes, such as Flint, Michigan's drinking water crisis.
Her letter concluded with this overall assessment:

"Today the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth. The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man's activities. It may take a few years and even an environmental disaster, but I am confident that Congress and the courts will eventually restore all the environmental protections repealed by this administration because the majority of the American people recognize that this protection of public health and safety is right and it is just."

"As is clear from Betsy's three-decade perspective, Scott Pruitt's pledge to restore 'EPA originalism' is nothing but a pernicious myth," stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, noting that the first round of early retirements and buyouts are now being processed. "In Pruitt's EPA, it is hard to identify even a single action to better protect the environment."

One of the rollbacks cited by Southerland in her message is the steam electric rule requiring that "the highly toxic wastes of coal fired electric plants be treated rather than poured untreated into large holding ponds where toxic chemicals seep into ground water and overflow into surface water, contaminating public water supplies and private wells and poisoning fish and wildlife." This rule was promulgated following "the 70-mile long Duke Energy spill into the Dan River of North Carolina in 2014."

Compounding growing problems inside EPA is an autocratic and secretive Pruitt management style in which he declines to meet directly with non-political staff, refuses to use email so as to not create any record, and issues orders to create decision documents at odds with the overwhelming weight of evidence. For example, he recently oversaw an unjustified retroactive rewrite of the cost-benefit study relating the Waters of the U.S. Rule so as to make as much as a half billion dollars in benefits disappear from the analysis.

"Increasingly, principled professionals, who have proudly served administrations from both parties, are under orders to betray, rather than serve, the public interest by remaining at EPA," added Bennett, pointing to Pruitt's moves to cancel all employee health club benefits while traveling extensively back to Oklahoma constantly surrounded by a phalanx of armed security agents. "In only a few months on the job, Scott Pruitt has become the leading candidate for worst boss in the world."

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

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If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


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