Pruitt rules EPA under a cloak of secrecy. Here's why you should care.

Martha Roberts

The imposing limestone government building in central Washington where Scott Pruitt holds sway is increasingly operating away from public view with decisions made behind closed doors, once-public information blacked out, and influential insiders taking charge.

As the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pruitt has also proven elusive, having spent more than half of his days away from Washington amid speculation he’s really focused on a future run for Oklahoma senator or governor. His frequent travel to the Midwestern state at taxpayers’ expense recently prompted the agency’s Inspector General to open an investigation – and yet, Pruitt has found time to quietly and systematically tear down policies that protect our health and safety.

Here are the five most glaring examples of the EPA chief’s pattern of secrecy, and what it means for you.

1. Suppressed web pages about climate change

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, my organization recently received EPA records detailing more than 1,900 items that had been modified or deleted from the agency’s website since President Trump’s inauguration day – including information about how climate change affects children and pregnant women. 

2. Keeps his schedule secret

Pruitt is hiding from the public even the most basic information about how he spends his business hours and with whom. Contravening a bi-partisan EPA transparency practice, Pruitt no longer makes any senior management calendars – including his own – available to the public. Americans have a right to know how a high-ranking, taxpayer-funded public servant spends his time and makes decisions that directly affect their lives.

3. Suspends pollution laws without public input

Over the past six months, Pruitt has taken actions to suspend environmental safeguards without providing any opportunity for public input – including protections against toxic wastewater, oil and gas pollution as well as climate pollution.

Among one of Pruitt’s earliest actions was to suspend, without any public input, protections against safety risks at major chemical facilities. Just a few months later, the Houston-area Arkema plant exploded after Hurricane Harvey flooded the site. 

4. Attacks reporter covering the EPA

Pruitt’s press team lashed out against an Associated Press journalist after he co-authored a report that exposed the EPA’s absence at Superfund sites flooded after Hurricane Harvey. The agency’s press release attacked the reporter without rebutting any of the article’s factual findings, raising concerns about the politicization of press coverage when public safety is at stake.

5. Rolls back enforcement against polluters

Under Trump’s administration, the EPA has quietly but dramatically reduced enforcement against polluters. So far, the agency has collected 60 percent less in civil penalties than previous administrations did during their first six months in office, a recent analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project found.

Not holding companies responsible for their pollution has tangible impacts in the form of more pollution, more illness and more avoidable early deaths among Americans like you and me.

As someone ‘taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it.’

So covert is Pruitt that he earned the Golden Padlock Award this summer from investigative reporters and editors who recognize the most secretive United States agency or individual. The judges were impressed by “the breadth and scope of Pruitt’s information suppression techniques around vital matters of public interest.”

Indeed, looking at the rapid transformation of the agency he led during the Nixon and Reagan administrations, former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus described Pruitt’s first six months as someone “taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it.”

Pruitt’s efforts to hollow out the EPA and weaken the public health safeguards that the agency is required to uphold is why we’re mobilizing, like never before, to protect and defend America’s clean air and water.

Public opinion and, increasingly, the courts are on our side, but we cannot let up the fight for the future of our children and grandchildren at this critical time.

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