EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt joined me this morning:
HH: My guest at the top of this hour, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who I reflexively call General Pruitt from his days as the Attorney General of Oklahoma. But I’m going to try and call him Administrator Pruitt. Good morning, Administrator, great to have you.
SP: Hugh, good morning from Washington, D.C. How are you?
HH: Good. We’re both in the Beltway. I’m back. You know, up until 24 hours ago, the big firing story in D.C. was the allegation that you’d fired your scientific advisory board. That was bogus. Would you go back and replace what you’re actually doing there?
SP: You know, Hugh, as you know, the board of scientific counselors that we have at the EPA, they serve three year terms. And so those are reviewed every three years. Those same individuals can apply through the competitive process. And what’s really been emphasized by Congress as I went through the confirmation process is geographical representation, because you want to ensure as you’re dealing with rulemaking – air, water, whatever rulemaking we’re doing, that the geographical uniqueness of our country as we’re patching rules is taken in consideration. And so you need scientists, you need individuals that have expertise and knowledge in those areas. And so it’s a good thing that these spots are reviewed every three years. These same individuals could very well be put back on the board. But it’s just simply a process to ensure that we have the type of representation, voices heard, so that we’re informed as we do rulemaking. The recent firing that took place, there was no firing that took place. These individuals can apply, will apply, I’m sure, in some instances, and very well could be put back on the board. But it’s the right thing to do to ensure transparency, its activity, peer-reviewed science and geographical representation on the board.
HH: You’re no stranger to partisan attacks, but the hyper-partisan coverage of EPA, everything you do has, I don’t know, is it wearying? Or are you just smiling and laughing it off?
SP: Look, I mean, this is an area of the last eight years that has taken on, forgive the reference, toxicity in Washington, D.C., and it’s because the past administration politicized everything. You know, we were told for eight years that you can’t be pro-growth, pro-jobs and pro-environment, though that’s entirely inconsistent with our history as a country. You know, people don’t know this, but since 1980, we’ve obviously grown our gross domestic product in this country substantially, but at the same time, we’ve reduced our air pollution under the Clean Air Act by 65%. You know, so we have a CO2 footprint in this country that’s pre-1994, you know, not because largely of government mandate, but because of innovation and technology by the private sector. We are leading the world at striking a balance between growth and jobs and the environment, but it didn’t serve political ends the last eight, the political ends of the administration, the past administration. And so restoring that balance, that common sense, you know, that discussion to these matters, I think, is entirely important, and very important, and we’re seeking to do that.
HH: You know, at some risk to my ratings, I want to talk about CERCLA and Superfund, because it does not matter to anyone who doesn’t live near or work near one of these sites. But the Superfund scandal is that we’re still talking about it after all these years. And I am not now, nor have I ever been a CERCLA lawyer. I know my NEPA and I know my ESA and my Clean Air Act, but I don’t do CERCLA, because it’s so doggone complicated. Can you explain what it is and what your agenda for the EPA is regarding these toxic waste sites and these poison sites around the country?
SP: Yeah, some of the most important work that we do as an agency, or should be doing, better put, is with respect to the Superfund responsibilities. And as you know, we have about 1,300-plus sites across the country. You know, the Port of Portland in Oregon, East Chicago in Indiana, Columbia Falls in Montana, Westlake, just outside of St. Louis, I mean, we have areas of our country that are pristine that have buried lead or uranium like in Westlake in St. Louis. And what’s happened over the years is it’s languished. The program has not had the kind of awareness and leadership and attitude of getting these sites cleaned up. We’ve had sites, and we have sites today like the Westlake site that was listed in the early to mid-1990s, thereabouts. Here we are in 2017, and there still has not been a decision, a decision by the EPA on what to do to remove the uranium or cap the uranium that’s on site there. That’s not clean up. That’s just a decision. You know, and so that’s just, that’s very unfortunate and wrong for the people of that area, because the parameters…
HH: How can that happen? How can that actually happen that it goes 20 years without a decision on what to do, much less do it?
SP: It’s just poor leadership. It’s poor focus. I mean, that’s what really strikes me, Hugh, when you look at the past administration’s environmental record. I mean, the past administration is viewed as the environmental savior. But when you look at air attainment in this country, we’re at 40% non-attainment right now on ozone. About 140 million people live in non-attainment areas for air quality, under air quality programs. Superfund sites, we have more today than when President Obama came into office. Water infrastructure, you had Flint and you had Gold King. And so what’s, and the regulations that they issued on carbon, they failed twice. They struck out twice. So when you look at their record, what exactly did they accomplish for the environment that folks are so excited about? You know, we’re coming in trying to focus on a back to basics agenda to say look, it’s unacceptable for the Westlake facility in St. Louis, Missouri to languish on a national priority list for 20-plus years. It’s time for leadership. It’s time for leadership in East Chicago, you know, action to be taken. So look, we have tremendous opportunity to do very good things for the environment. And all the people want to focus on here are the things that you mentioned, which is you know, doing our job to make sure that the science advisory board, and all those boards that we have, actually have geographical representation and informed opinions so we can do rulemaking properly.
HH: I don’t even know if you want anyone back from a scientific advisory board that has allowed problems like this uranium problem about which I know nothing to languish. I do know you have to decide in the world of environmental science. You have to get the best advice and decide what is endangered, what isn’t, what needs clean up first, what doesn’t. But you need to decide, not dither. And the dithering of the last eight years is amazing. Let me turn over to the Waters of the United States. Now I live in this world. And by the way, congratulations on your recusal. I also want people to know you promised to the Senate you’d take the advice of ethics counselor on what you need to recuse yourself from, your days as Oklahoma attorney general, and you just did that. No one notes this. You actually, you know made a promise and followed through on it.
SP: Yes, I mean, Hugh, that was something that to the senators individually and there in the confirmation process and all that, we went through it and made sure that we evaluated the cases, made informed decisions about what cases I needed to be recused from. They were specific matters that Oklahoma was a party. Those cases, and that’s really been since day one. I mean, that’s been a matter of practice, and it’s also now a matter of formality. So it was the right thing and is the right thing to do, and we’ve definitely kept that promise.
HH: Oh, congratulations on that, but we have a couple of minutes left, and I want to talk about Waters of the United States. You have begun a rulemaking. This is vital to the growth of the country’s economy. And now you’ve reached out to the governors who have to live with these decisions in the economies of their state, sometimes on state land, and solicited their input. When was the last time that happened from a federal agency?
SP: Well, they have been so, so encouraged. I mean, I met with about 18-20 governors my first week after being sworn in, and I have gone out into the field across the country. Governor Greitens of Missouri, you know, Governor Holcomb in Indiana, Governor Sandoval in Nevada. He and I spent quite a bit of time talking and evaluating various issues. But they are so excited to have someone at the EPA that is listening to them, that’s partnering with them as opposed to treating them as adversaries. So when you look at Waters of the United States, you know, the land use decisions has historically, legally and otherwise, been the province of the states, localities and private property owners. The past administration just disregarded that and created a definition that literally transformed dry creek beds, puddles across this country under federal jurisdiction. So we’re changing all that as we should, getting the definition right. But we’re partnering with those at the state level, Hugh, governors and those that use private property to say how do we work together to regulate water as opposed to work against each other.
HH: Now I know you are in pre-decisional mode, so you have not made up your mind. You’re in notice and comment rulemaking, and people ought to go and find that and send in their comments on Waters of the United States. And you and your team will review those. There will be hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of comments. But this APA process, you can’t make up your mind before you begin it, and you haven’t. When, though, do you expect reasonably for Americans to expect a draft rule, an interim, you know, you have to put out a draft for more comment. When do you expect to get that?
SP: Well, this federalism process that we’re going through, Hugh, is very, very important. And you’re right. The comments we’re receiving help inform our decision. But as far as the timing of the process, I anticipate and hope that by the end of the year or first quarter of ’18 that we’ll have a final rule. So the process we’re in has already begun, notice and comments, ensuring that we’re hearing their voices of everyone across the country. But hopefully, the final rule will occur sometime late this year or early next.
HH: And then you will get sued. That will be inevitable. And by that time, the Department of Justice, they will have a new head of ENDA, I assume, and they will have a team up and running. Will you persevere? This is the most important thing for growth in the country is to get this Waters of the United States as well as some ESA reforms, I talked to Ryan Zinke about this. Will you persevere on this? And by the way, less than a minute, do you…
SP: Yeah, absolutely.
HH: Do you, go ahead.
SP: I mean, I think, look, the folks across the country, citizens and industry and states and the federal government deserve a clarity on what a Water of the United States equals. And the reason for that is, as you know, it provides certainty to those that are regulated. If you are going to determine on a case by case basis what a Water of the United States is, then that doesn’t provide advance notice on how to regulate, how to take care of it, and how to invest. So it’s a situation we need to get right.
HH: It kills growth. It just kills growth. Administrator Scott Pruitt of the EPA, come back early and often. Good to talk to you this morning. Thank you for joining us. Follow him @EPAScottPruitt on Twitter.
End of interview.