Trump's EPA pick seen as a 'sucker punch' to clean water advocates

Trump's EPA pick seen as a 'sucker punch' to clean water advocates

Scott Pruitt, Attorney General of Oklahoma, arrives in the lobby of the Trump Tower in New York, 28 November 2016. Trump has tapped Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency

DETROIT --- Chicken manure.

While Pruitt helped develop a solution to chicken manure problems fouling a scenic river and popular lake in his state, he also worked to thwart EPA regulation of those very kinds of water pollution problems. And he also was a strong supporter of a referendum in Oklahoma that would have given large corporate farms nearly free rein on environmental matters.

A business community that feels overburdened by the Obama administration's expanded environmental regulations should love Pruitt.

Environmentalists? Not so much.

The Oklahoma Attorney General was a leading opponent of Obama's Clean Power Plan, expanded regulations to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions. Pruitt advocated investigating climate change alarmists as a counter to Democratic state attorneys general, who called for investigating climate change deniers in the petroleum industry.

Pruitt also opposed Obama's plan to expand EPA water regulation and has frequently sided with Oklahoma's large-scale agriculture and oil and gas drilling interests.

Trump's pick of Pruitt to head the EPA "prompted an expletive from me," said Scott Hood, a business owner in Tulsa and past president and current board member of the Oklahoma Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

"I'm a tightrope walker, because I'm a conservative conservationist," Hood said. "I believe in small government, but I want clean air and water. I think the EPA sometimes goes a bit too far. (But) I know Pruitt's stance, and maybe it's too hard-line."

The issues in Oklahoma on the Illinois River are long-standing, dating to the 1980s, when Oklahoma sued upstream Fayetteville, Ark., over its wastewater discharges into a tributary of the Illinois. Phosphorus, sediment and bacteria pollution from human sewage and waste from poultry and other confined animal feeding operations have led to algal blooms and degraded fish habitats on the river, connected streams and at Lake Tenkiller, a reservoir in eastern Oklahoma formed by a large dam on the Illinois River.

"Fifteen years ago, we had so much chicken litter in our water, we couldn't filter it out. We had chicken litter in our water taps," Hood said.

While water quality issues have become less drastic since then, serious problems remain, Hood said.  Go by Lake Tenkiller in the fall, when water stratifications are changing and lake bottom waters are working their way to the surface, bringing the smell of sulfur into the air, he said.

"It smells like Yellowstone Park," he said. "And it's chicken manure. It's a sulfur, phosphorus smell that comes out."

In February 2013, Pruitt announced a deal with Arkansas to conduct a three-year, "best science" study on phosphorus loads, agreeing that both states will abide by its findings. The findings of that study, released earlier this month, largely upheld Oklahoma's stricter standard. But the two-state panel is proposing to change the standard from 0.037 milligrams of phosphorus per liter of water, measured as a 30-day mean, to 0.035 milligrams per liter measured as a six-month average on water samples taken when surface runoff is not a primary driver of higher levels.

That, some river advocates contend, amounts to a weakening of the protection.

Pruitt's selection to head EPA was "a sucker punch; it was a gut punch. He was a horrible choice," said Denise Deason-Toyne, president of the nonprofit Save the Illinois River.

"It's an oxymoron, Scott Pruitt and the environment," she said.

While purportedly working to reduce the agricultural runoff fouling Oklahoma's waterways, Pruitt was also adding Oklahoma to a federal lawsuit against the EPA in 2013, siding with the American Farm Bureau, the Fertilizer Institute, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council and other farming interests. The lawsuit claimed EPA was exceeding its authority in enforcing "total maximum daily load," or TMDL, standards in Chesapeake Bay, limitations on nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments.

This November, Oklahomans were able to vote on a ballot measure, State Question 777, or the Oklahoma Right to Farm Amendment. It would have amended the state constitution to include the right to farm and ranch — elevating the practices to the same sorts of protected status as free speech and the right to bear arms.

The measure would have required courts to overturn any challenged agricultural or livestock regulations deemed unnecessary for protecting a "compelling state interest."

"We smelled right away that this was a Big Agriculture issue, not a local farmer issue," Hood said. "Big Ag was the money behind it. It put the handcuffs on our Legislature from making laws about farming practices. And if some small person had to go up against some violator, it was probably going to be a loss in court. It would be sue and survive against Big Ag, and they're going to come with their 50 lawyers."

An odd coalition of measure opponents, including hunting and fishing enthusiasts and animal rights groups such as PETA, helped push the referendum to a sound defeat in November's election, with more than 60% of Oklahoma voters opposed.

But Pruitt, speaking at the Oklahoma Farm Bureau's annual meeting about a week after the election, lamented Right to Farm's defeat.

"It was right to advance, because there are out-of-state interests that try to come in and dictate farming and ranching practices that we need to be on guard against," he said. "This was an effort — a justifiable effort — for farmers and ranchers across the state of Oklahoma to say, 'We're going to protect ourselves, inoculate ourselves against that type of approach by out-of-state interests.'"

On another environmental issue highly relevant to Michigan — automotive fuel economy standards —  Pruitt's possible elevation to EPA chief has already met with enthusiasm from automakers frustrated with the Obama administration's tightened regulations.

“Over the past couple years, we’ve had the opportunity to visit with Attorney General Pruitt in his current role.  He is a terrific public servant, a great listener and a principled leader," said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of Auto Alliance, an industry group representing 12 automakers, including Ford, GM, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles as well as Asian and German automakers.

"We look forward to working with him in his new capacity after confirmation to help ensure that the midterm process for fuel economy and greenhouse gases is completed thoroughly and with close attention to achieving a balanced outcome, so that we can continue to achieve gains in fuel efficiency and carbon reduction while also protecting customer affordability and auto-dependent jobs.”

The automotive industry agreed in 2012 to a set of increasingly tough standards on greenhouse gas emissions. But government and the industry also agreed to revisit those regulations this year to see whether they should be adjusted because of negative impacts on the car market and other factors.

Just last week, the EPA said that it had determined no changes are necessary to the regulations, scheduled to take effect between 2020 and 2025.

The automotive industry argues that lower-than-expected gasoline prices, lagging electric vehicle sales and the increasing popularity of SUVs justifies a loosening of the stricter standards. The Obama administration's counterargument is that the automotive industry has successfully introduced new and improved efficiency technologies faster than anticipated, and are more than able to meet the new regulations.

The EPA also denied it was rushing its automotive regulation review process, which it did not need to complete until April 2018, while critics argued the agency was trying to race the clock and lock existing regulations in place before Trump takes office.

Since becoming state attorney general in 2010, Pruitt has received more than $210,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas and electricity utility industries, and more than $84,000 from the agriculture industry.

"It's obvious where his loyalties lie," Deason-Toyne said.  "He is not a steward of clean water or clean air; he is a proponent of unregulated big business. I hope common sense prevails and he is not approved."

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