Conflicts of interest taint Trump's environmental picks: Top 7 examples

Keith Gaby

Back when Donald Trump was a real estate developer whose projects involved thousands of construction workers, he repeatedly downplayed well-documented dangers of asbestos, writing in one of his books that the carcinogen was “100-percent safe, when applied.”

It helps explain President Trump’s pattern, amid ever-swirling ethical scandals, of selecting people with conflicts of interest for key environmental positions. These are appointments that will undermine the health of American families.

His latest consideration, according to The New York Times: Replacing experts on a federal science advisory board “with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate” – again raising the issue of his administration’s serious conflicts of interest when it comes to enforcing clean air and water laws.

Even if some of Trump’s appointees are undoubtedly nice people, it matters a great deal who is running federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and what drives their interests and motivations.

Here are a few of the most conflicted people with power over health and environmental policies in his administration, including, at the top, the president himself:

1. Nancy Beck: Worked for chemical industry group

Beck has just been hired as the highest political appointee at the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, the office writing the rules for the nation’s new chemical safety law. She last worked for the chemical industry’s trade group pushing the EPA to write those rules in a way that set the loosest standards for companies, and provided the least protection for families.

Beck is now in a position to undermine the bipartisan law that has the potential to bring sanity to our chemical safety system. Toxic chemicals, as you know, are linked to cancer, diabetes and death. 

2. Justin Schwab: Represented coal utility

Now a top lawyer at the EPA, Schwab was previously the attorney for a utility and other major industrial companies that likely have a financial interest in EPA decisions.

While at the law firm BakerHostetler, he represented, among others, Southern Company, one of the country’s largest coal-burning utilities. Fun fact: Schwab also represented the “London Whale,” the financial trader who was behind JPMorgan’s monstrous trading losses in 2012.

Undermining limits on pollution from power plants will result in more asthma attacks and other health problems.

3. Andrew Wheeler: Lobbied for coal mining giant

Wheeler, a lobbyist for Murray Energy, has reportedly been tapped to become deputy administrator, the second-highest official at the EPA. Murray, the country’s largest coal mining conglomerate – which has been fined for safety violations and repeatedly sued to block pollution limits – just called on the EPA to drop the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule.

The rule is already reducing the amount of mercury, a neurotoxin that damages children’s brains, and other harmful pollutants in our environment. As deputy administrator, Wheeler would be in a position to influence a decision about whether or not to try to repeal this rule.

4. Carl Icahn: Oil refinery investor, billionaire

Icahn has been advising Trump on a range of issues, including important rules and environmental safeguards. He’s been accused of promoting “policy proposals that benefit his own investments,” that include stakes in an oil refinery. He also interviewed Pruitt for the EPA job, asking him about issues that had a direct impact on his business interests.

Icahn is in a position to potentially influence regulatory issues in which he has a business stake.

5. Christian Palich: Lobbied for coal industry group

Palich recently got a senior position in the EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. Before that he was head of the Ohio Coal Association and a registered lobbyist.

In that position, Palich praised President Trump for honoring his pledge to stand up to “radical environmentalists” by targeting clean air and climate safeguards. 

6. Doug Matheney: Ran Ohio’s “Count on Coal”

Recently hired as Secretary Rick Perry’s assistant at the U.S. Department of Energy, Matheney is very familiar with industry players.

He has worked for both Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers-backed political organization, and as the Ohio director of Count on Coal, a public relations campaign funded by the coal industry. 

7. Scott Pruitt: Sued the EPA 14 times

As has been well documented, the companies that Pruitt now regulates have contributed millions of dollars to his political campaigns and causes. Pruitt sued in court to block 14 EPA safeguards – protections he’s now in charge of implementing and enforcing.

Pruitt recently made a big show of recusing himself from litigation over these safeguards. But he’s made no similar assurance that he will not let his conflicts of interest skew his approach to rolling back and undercutting these important protections.

As he gets under way with targeting regulations that benefit his industry allies, 125 million Americans who already live in areas with polluted air can expect even more asthma attacks and other lung diseases. 

Commander in Chief: Where the problem begins

With his appointments, Trump will ultimately be responsible if pollution increases and we see a rise in asthma attacks among children, more premature deaths from lung disease, and more communities suffering from unhealthy air pollution. Of course, his own conflicts are the most powerful and disturbing of them all.

Many of the president’s family’s business interests are overseen by the federal government, including important health and environmental programs.

There are many others in the administration, not all of whom are presidential appointees, with close ties to regulated, polluting industries. All of this in spite of the fact that President Trump signed a new “ethics” order when he first took office. In reality, the order weakens protections against improper influence.

Philosophical differences are one thing, but having a government run by those with self-interests that run counter to the public good is another. Unless we have a cleaner government, we’re unlikely to have a cleaner world.