Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt doesn’t hide his contempt for how the agency has been run, but does profess to care about one of its key programs: Superfund, which oversees the cleanup of the nation’s worst toxic-waste sites. In April, he toured a site in East Chicago, Indiana, contaminated with lead and arsenic, and told residents, “We are going to get this right.”
The following month, Pruitt — Oklahoma’s attorney general before he joined the EPA — tapped one of his former donors, banker Albert “Kell” Kelly, to find ways to accelerate and improve Superfund cleanups. Kelly started by consulting career staff members — often-knowledgeable officials who work at the agency regardless of who holds the White House. But then Kelly closed off the process, conferring with Pruitt to produce a final plan that altered or excluded many of the staffers’ suggestions. Gone, for example, was the idea that EPA officials be identified early on to lead discussions with communities on how contaminated land should be used after cleanup.
“We’re missing a huge opportunity to do something new and different with Superfund,” said one of two EPA employees who described the process to the Center for Public Integrity on the condition of anonymity.
What happened with Superfund is hardly an anomaly. Today’s EPA is wracked with internal conflict and industry influence, and is struggling to fulfill its mission, according to more than two dozen current and former agency employees. A few dozen political appointees brought in under the Trump administration are driving policy. At least 16 of the 45 appointees worked for industries such as oil, coal and chemicals. Four of these people — and another 21 — worked for, or donated to, politicians who have questioned established climate science, such as Pruitt and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
Career staff members — lawyers, scientists, analysts — are largely being frozen out of decision-making, current and former agency employees say. These staffers rarely get face time with Pruitt and frequently receive top-down orders from political appointees with little room for debate. They must sometimes force their way into conversations about subjects in which they have expertise.
And that is a big mistake, said one of Pruitt’s predecessors.
Career employees are “very dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, and they will change their ways of how they do that if they’re convinced you really want to accomplish that aim,” said Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under President George W. Bush.
One such employee agreed. “I think it’s the fact that we’re not following regular procedures, we’re not sure of what the legal justification is for some of the things they’re asking us to do. We’re just kind of being told ‘Do the opposite thing you did 18 months ago.’ That’s hard to swallow.”