Scott Pruitt doesn’t know the power of the EPA
It’s important to remember that the EPA is a Republican creation. Madeline Ostrander reports in the New Yorker:
the early nineteen-sixties, a young lawyer named William Ruckelshaus was assigned to Indiana’s state board of health to prosecute cases of toxic dumping. At the time, it was commonplace for manufacturers to discard untreated industrial swill—ammonia, cyanide, pesticides, petroleum waste, slag from steel plants, “pickle liquor” (sulfuric acid)—into the nearest sewer, river, or lake. Sometimes, it formed piles of noxious froth nearly as tall as a house. “Those rivers were cesspools,” Ruckelshaus told me recently. He and his colleague Gerald Hansler, an environmental engineer, began touring the state in a white panel truck. They collected water samples and snapped photographs of fish corpses—bluegills, sunfish, and perch, poisoned by the effluent that gushed from industrial outfalls. Then they wrote up the evidence and brought charges against those responsible. Yet, however diligently they worked, their efforts were often regarded with suspicion by Indiana’s governor, who wanted to keep businesses from moving to states with even laxer environmental standards. “I just saw how powerless the states were to act,” Ruckelshaus recalled.
Ruckelshaus brought this lesson with him to Washington, D.C., in 1970, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to set up and run the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From a modest cluster of rooms on L Street, Ruckelshaus led the agency in its first swift actions. After less than two weeks, he announced that the E.P.A. planned to sue the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit unless they made a serious effort to stop polluting their rivers with sewage. Later, he refused to give automakers an extension on their mandate to install catalytic converters in all new vehicles—a requirement that eventually resulted in large cuts to toxic, smog-forming emissions. And, in 1972, Ruckelshaus’s E.P.A. banned most uses of the pesticide DDT, a move that helped save a national icon, the American bald eagle, from extinction. More than four decades on, the E.P.A.’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act has averted millions of cases of respiratory disease and continues to save hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, according to a series of agency analyses. For the most part, urban rivers are no longer cesspools, and beaches once fouled with sewage are swimmable. Lake Erie is troubled but no longer deemed dead, as it was in the sixties. Lead levels in the coastal waters off Southern California have dropped a hundredfold.
Ruckelshaus, who is now eighty-four, has watched the ascent of Donald Trump with some trepidation. In August, he and William Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under President George H. W. Bush, endorsed Hillary Clinton, lambasting Trump as ignorant of the G.O.P.’s “historic contributions to science-driven environmental policy.” The President-elect’s pick to head the E.P.A., the Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has argued before Congress that the agency “was never intended to be our nation’s frontline environmental regulator,” and that the states should have primary authority. That argument is now a favorite among conservatives. But according to Philip Angell, who became an E.P.A. special assistant in 1970 and has worked with Ruckelshaus on and off for the past four and a half decades, Pruitt’s interpretation ignores the history and intent of the laws that define the agency’s mission. The statutes give the E.P.A. “the primary authority to set standards and enforce them if the states won’t do it,” he told me. “The whole point was to set a federal baseline.” One of those statutes, the Clean Air Act, is also “famously capacious,” as Ruckelshaus and Reilly wrote in a legal brief they filed last year in support of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. The act, they point out, obliges the E.P.A. to tackle even those environmental problems that no one knew about or understood in 1970, including climate change.
Pruitt not only denies the scientific consensus on global warming but also disputes the E.P.A.’s authority to act on it. He has called the Clean Power Plan an “executive fiat,” as if it were produced at Obama’s whim rather than through the interpretation of the law. Both his LinkedIn profile and his biography on the Oklahoma Attorney General office’s Web site boast that he is a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” He has a hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday morning, and if he makes it through the confirmation process, he’s likely to try to weaken the E.P.A.’s authority. The Republican Party platform envisions shrinking the agency into “an independent bipartisan commission,” and Trump and his adviser Myron Ebell, who is leading the E.P.A. transition, have talked about abolishing it altogether.
But doing away with the E.P.A. would be no easy task, according to Ruckelshaus and other legal experts. “You have all the statutes the E.P.A. administers,” he said. “You’d have to have a debate on each of those laws.” In the early nineteen-eighties, when President Ronald Reagan’s first E.P.A. appointee, Anne Gorsuch Burford, tried to pick the agency apart, she ultimately resigned amid scandal and corruption investigations. Reagan summoned Ruckelshaus to Washington to put the E.P.A. back together. In the past three decades, the agency has had a mixed record, but no administrator has successfully sabotaged its mission. President George W. Bush’s first two E.P.A. appointments were moderates, though his third, Stephen Johnson, stymied efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. And even under Obama’s progressive environmental policies, budget cuts have made it harder for regulators to police pollution violations.
Today, there is ample evidence of what happens when environmental regulation fails—notably the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But although there is a growing citizen movement in the United States clamoring for more aggressive action on climate change, the E.P.A. itself “has no constituency,” Ruckelshaus said. . .