Scott Pruitt has resigned as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The embattled ex-chief, completely uneducated on environmental science, made history in mounting one of the most vicious and deliberately orchestrated implosions of a U.S. federal agency. As ethics investigations pick up steam, Pruitt leaves behind low morale and distrust in a wrecked institution stripped of power, along with promises made to lobbyists and industry giants. Scandals and allegations of abuse and misuse of government resources have plagued the former Oklahoma Attorney General, as public discontent escalated in the last several weeks.
Pruitt was appointed chief of the EPA by Donald Trump, despite, or perhaps because of, a history of lawsuits and constant criticism against the agency he was to lead. While in office in Oklahoma, Pruitt actively sided with coal and animal husbandry corporations in fighting environmental regulation, and acted on their behalf to prevent the EPA from holding polluters accountable.
In a highly controversial move, Pruitt and Trump suspended the clean water rule, which was put forth by the Obama administration to help protect water naturally flowing into lakes and rivers, from pollution. The rule is intended to expand on the definition of the protected waters in the federal Clean Water Act, which establishes mechanisms to control dumping of waste into “navigable” waters.
Coal mining and farming businesses pushing back against restrictions on where they can dump waste argue that the Clean Water Act constitutes enough intervention by federal authorities, and that the issue should be left to the states. However, the act does not take watershed drainage into consideration. Upon discharge, pollution such as animal manure and coal mining waste is carried by smaller creeks or tributaries, and drain from the surrounding watershed into larger water bodies.
Whereas the Clean Water Act covers the larger water body, contamination can still enter the protected lake or river, which makes the clean water rule essential. The rule would simply expand the definition of the protected waters, not add regulation. Without protecting the watershed, even if the contaminated lake or river water still meets EPA’s standards forming part of the Clean Water Act, introduction of antibiotics, hormones and industrial chemicals incoming from smaller streams may be inevitable and practically impossible to remediate.
During his tenure, Pruitt lead major efforts to, not only roll back necessary guidelines, but also to pull inconvenient water, air, and climate change related information from the EPA website, as well as remove data from public access, even making some key results inaccessible to scientists who were in the process of using it for research.
Superfund sites, which are locations requiring remediation due to hazardous waste and chemical dumping, have significantly lost funding and support. Since Pruitt took charge, information on the status of these sites has often disappeared for “updates” and returning thinner, especially during flooding events. Lack of transparency has kept the public in the dark about dangerous chemicals and environmental threats in their communities, at times when it is crucial to be aware of dangers lurking in their environment.
For instance, Hurricane Harvey flood waters in Houston put at least 11 superfund sites at risk — yet, the EPA website featured pages with broken links, claims of updates underway, and missing information. In fact, the EPA eventually revealed that cancer-causing dioxins were detected in floodwaters from the San Jacinto River Pits superfund site.
The EPA has also faced criticism for mishandling the hurricane disasters in 2017. In Puerto Rico, the agency struggled to protect environmental resources after Hurricane Maria decimated the island, and hazardous waste sites were not properly secured. People looking for water were able to wander into hazardous waste sites that should have been restricted from access. Despite the failures, the agency is moving forward with plans to create a commemorative coin celebrating its response to the 2017 hurricanes.
One of the concern areas most recklessly neglected by Pruitt is climate change. As climate change continues to impact water supply and quality, food and nutrition, increase vector-borne illnesses, and inflict extreme weather and heat, Pruitt and Trump moved the U.S. away from progress and into conflict with the rest of the world. As a fossil fuel industry advocate, Pruitt was instrumental in Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, and the U.S. is already set to miss the mark on the former greenhouse gas reduction pledge for 2025.
At this time, the quality of our environment hangs in the balance, and major damage control is needed for the EPA to recover the trust of the public and reestablish its functions in protecting precious water and air resources. The same air and water flow across states boundaries, which makes it impossible to control pollution effectively at the state level. A coherent federal operation of environmental monitoring, regulation, and enforcement is crucial to maintain consistency and meet standards set across the nation.
The EPA has tremendous implications not only nationally, but also internationally, as it has historically been a model of proper environmental stewardship. By design, the environment must be protected at a global level and in unity, as natural resources such as water and air are shared by all. It is imperative that a responsible, well-qualified leader take control and rebuild the EPA, pushing against unethical influence from polluting industries. Most importantly, the EPA needs to re-establish public trust and respect.