Category Archives: Commentary

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s Failed Leadership Mangles Environmental Protection, Endangers Millions Devastated by Extreme Weather

Scott Pruitt is Damaging Hurricane Recovery and Preparedness

Sierra Club press release Friday, September 21: 

Despite his dogged efforts to dismantle the agency he leads and refocus it on protecting corporate polluters instead of the American people, somehow Polluting Pruitt just can’t seem to catch a break with the press outside Breitbartlandia.

Why? Well, for the past few weeks at least, it’s because his policies are undermining the long and

Well, for the past few weeks at least, it’s because his policies are undermining the long and short-term recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Heckuva job, Pruitt.

It’s hard to put it more succinctly than Thomas Friedman in the NYT:

“Trump has recently fired various knuckle-headed aides whose behavior was causing him short-term embarrassment. The person he needs to fire is Scott Pruitt. Pruitt is going to cause Trump long-term embarrassment.”

What’s Pruitt screwing up? Let’s count the ways…

Pruitt endangered first responders in Houston by delaying a toxics disclosure safeguard

Because of destruction and flooding from Harvey, “the Arkema chemical manufacturing and storage facility outside of Houston burst into flames, and black smoke billowed out after Harvey’s floodwaters knocked out equipment used to keep the plant’s volatile chemicals cool.

Fifteen sheriff’s deputies were taken to the hospital for inhaling the irritants and a mandatory evacuation is in place for all residents living within 1.5 miles of the chemical plant in southeast Texas.” (CNN)

Remarkably, Pruitt falsely claimed that there were “no concentrations of concern for toxic materials” from the plant.

Clearly, Pruitt was trying to cover up the fact that he had endangered first responders by delaying a safeguard that could have required greater disclosure of the types of hazardous chemicals at sites like Arkema.

EPA’s Risk Management Plan rule was specifically designed to protect first responders and help them in responses to these types of disasters.

According to Politico “The rule in question probably wouldn’t have prevented Thursday’s explosions, but it’s aimed at reducing the likelihood of future accidents — and ensuring that emergency responders and the public know what types of dangerous substances they might be exposed to.

Firefighters and other emergency crews lack much of that crucial information about the plants and factories now awash with floodwater.”

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Pruitt’s contrived arguments in his defense to ABC News about terrorism are nonsense. The group says: “Administrator Pruitt is either willfully ignorant or simply confused about how the Risk Management Plan works currently and the updated rule.”

“Administrator Pruitt is either willfully ignorant or simply confused about how the Risk Management Plan works currently and the updated rule.”

Pruitt is closing an EPA lab in Houston that’s crucial for recovery

The Houston Chronicle reported that Pruitt is set to close EPA’s Region 6 Environmental Services Laboratory.

The majority of the lab’s work has been concentrated on the dozens of Superfund sites in the region, 13 of which flooded and released toxic chemicals when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. The lab has doubled in an important role as a staging area for EPA staff.

The closure is slated for 2020, far earlier than when the recovery from Hurricane Harvey is expected to conclude.

As Texas communities are trying to assess the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey and figure out a way forward as we rebuild, Scott Pruitt is trying to close down the offices that help evaluate risk and protect them by testing water and soil samples.

Later reports indicate that Pruitt may be feeling the heat of public exposure and may be considering keeping the facility open.

Pruitt is failing to inform the public of unlimited pollution he’s permitting in Harvey-affected communities

The Texas Tribune reports, meanwhile, that Scott Pruitt’s EPA is refusing to publicly share the levels of Benzene pollution throughout the region affected by Hurricane Harvey, while his agency continues to waive environmental safeguards.

There are 449 chemical and toxic facilities and refineries in the 25 counties most affected by the hurricane, and residents have personally smelled and detected dangerous concentrations of the pollutant.

Put differently, Pruitt is putting people who have just lost their homes and loved ones in even greater harm while refusing to tell them what dangers they face.

In the wake of Harvey, Donald Trump promised the people of Texas he was with them. Pruitt is making it clear that was just more pollution dumped in their air.

Pruitt’s attacks on EPA staff are reducing agency effectiveness

Another Pruitt pet project is destroying the agency he runs from within. One element of that is looking for ways to render it ineffective by eliminating career staff.

The Washington Post reports that Pruitt has been successful in that mission thus far, gradually whittling away the most experienced agency staff to levels not seen since the 80s through a combination of an arbitrary across-the-board hiring freeze and buyouts:

“Last week, 362 employees accepted a voluntary buyout, according to one agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the figures have not been publicly announced. On Aug. 31, a dozen employees retired. Another 33 employees are retiring at the end of September, and 45 additional employees are considering retirement offers.”

EPA’s Inspector General to Pruitt: you don’t have enough staff to manage superfund sites effectively

Despite Pruitt’s claim that Superfund site remediation is a top priority for him, the EPA Inspector General just made any such notion look absurd.

The EPA Inspector General reports, as relayed by the AP, that “Cleanups at some U.S. hazardous waste sites have stopped or slowed down because the Environmental Protection Agency does not manage its Superfund staff effectively to match its workload.”

Pruitt’s outrageous budget and staffing cuts are obviously going to do nothing to help the problem; both will clearly make it much worse. Staffing cuts are already eliminating important institutional knowledge at the Agency, as well as critical capacity. According to the IG, right now:

“More than half of EPA’s regions reported they could not start work or had to stop work on cleanup projects because of a lack of staff, according to the findings.”

Pruitt is using environmental crime investigators as bodyguards

But there’s one area where Pruitt does not want to skimp at all on staffing. Pruitt, like other members of Trump’s cabinet, is using the American taxpayer’s dime to fund completely unprecedented and costly benefits. For Pruitt, it’s hefty, round-the-clock security protection.

Bloomberg BNA first reported that Pruitt is failing to increase environmental crimes enforcement staff at the same time that he is hiring more special agents to protect himself around the clock on his travels back home to Oklahoma every week:

“The EPA has 151 federal law enforcement officials working environmental crimes cases—49 short of the number set by a 1990 law—and there is no indication their ranks will increase. The only uptick in the number of special agents are those who protect Administrator Scott Pruitt around-the-clock, including when he goes home on weekends to Tulsa, Okla.”

According to a former special agent interviewed by the Washington Post:

“These guys signed on to work on complex environmental cases, not to be an executive protection detail … It’s not only not what they want to do, it’s not what they were trained and paid to do.”

Pruitt’s deputies: either non-existent or polluter fanatics who despise EPA’s mission

It’s hard to say right now whether it’s a blessing or a curse that EPA lacks so many senior political appointees. Many key positions are vacant, leaving a leadership vacuum that is impairing recovery efforts.

At the same time, Pruitt’s nominees and allies are so universally objectionable and opposed to the mission of the agency that it may even be fortunate that they are not all yet in place.

Case in point: Pruitt wants Andrew Wheeler, who is literally a coal industry lobbyist, to be his top deputy.

Wheeler has represented Big Coal for almost a decade, including in lawsuits challenging the EPA. He is a friend to polluters, not to American families that rely on clean air and clean water.

Wheeler has worked for one of the most notorious climate deniers and opponents of environmental protection, Sen. Inhofe, which means he’ll be at home in Pruitt’s agency as it moves forward with plans to ignore the climate crisis and gut health protections.

Wheeler has also previously suggested to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that they revisit a 2009 scientific finding that carbon pollution poses a threat to public health.

Meanwhile, Pruitt wants Bill Wehrum to lead the air office at EPA–the same Bill Wehrum who has said that the Clean Air Act shouldn’t apply to the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change and superstorms like Hurricane Harvey.

Wehrum was rejected by the Senate once before for his dangerous positions, and like many of Trump’s nominees has an astounding number of conflicts of interest given that he has regularly represented corporate polluters in their efforts to undermine clean air safeguards.

Pruitt’s defensive attack on AP’s Harvey journalism exposed his hollow core

After the Associated Press correctly reported that, under Pruitt, the EPA had not been able to survey numerous toxic sites that had been flooded in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Agency’s press staff released an unprecedented press release falsely attacking one of that outlet’s reporters.

More specifically, Pruitt’s press staff attacked a co-reporter of the piece for writing from Washington, D.C., while blatantly ignoring the documentary photography that had been gathered by the wire service’s reporters on the ground in Texas.

The entire incident raises deeply serious concerns when an agency charged with protecting our health is literally willing to tell you to “ignore your lying eyes.”

The AP later reported that, though EPA had released no public information to this effect and apparently ignored or disregarded reports, “one of Houston’s dirtiest Superfund toxic waste sites” had flooded and there was, in fact, evidence of toxic spills.

As reported by AP:

“The reported spills, which have been not publicly detailed, occurred at U.S. Oil Recovery, a former petroleum industry waste processing plant contaminated with a dangerous brew of cancer-causing chemicals. On Aug. 29, the day Harvey’s remnants cleared out, a county pollution control team sent photos to the EPA of three large concrete tanks flooded with water.”

Attacking reporters appears to be par for the course for Pruitt’s EPA. In August, Pruitt’s spokesperson threatened to call the police on reporters for merely trying to do their jobs.

Pruitt’s campaign against climate reality is undermining preparedness for future storms

Just as Hurricane Irma was about to hit Florida, an EPA spokesperson confirmed that Scott Pruitt had eliminated the EPA’s climate adaptation office, as reported by Politico Pro. That office was designed to focus on preparing for sea-level rise and extreme weather.

Additionally, an internal memo confirmed that the office of Environmental Justice will be dramatically reorganized and moved into the Office of Policy. Previously, Pruitt and Trump pushed to eliminate all funding for the EPA’s Environmental Justice office.

This was an outrageous, offensively bad decision at exactly the wrong time and Pruitt should be ashamed of himself. Pruitt’s job is to help protect the people in our communities who need help, not pull the wool over their eyes and bury his head in the sand.

These decisions came amid Pruitt’s absurd comments to CNN that the time to discuss “the cause and effect of these storms … [is] not now” and that bringing up climate change is “very insensitive,” for which he was widely panned in the press.

And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that Pruitt has been dismantling the previous administration’s signature climate policies one by one, as well as leading the charge against the Paris agreement.

Rejecting Pruitt, both Miami and Houston think “now” is a great time to discuss climate change

When Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw from the Paris agreement, he told the world that he was elected to represent “Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

He swiftly received an unprecedented rebuke from leaders throughout the U.S., including the Mayor of Pittsburgh, who affirmed his strong commitment to the Paris accord and went even further to declare that Pittsburgh would power itself with 100 percent clean energy.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, there have been pointed calls for climate action in both Houston and Miami.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado found Pruitt’s refusal to discuss climate change absurd, telling CNN, “This is the time to talk about climate change… If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is.”

And the Houston Chronicle called for an open discussion of the climate crisis in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, imploring as follows in a dramatic, implicit rebuke to Pruitt:

“Scientists have warned that man-made climate change could bring bizarre and unprecedented events. Harvey probably belongs on that list. If Houston is going to be serious about keeping our city safe from Mother Nature, then we have to make global warming part of the discussion.”

Perhaps, instead of spending the bulk of his time in office attacking an international climate agreement not even within his portfolio, in between his constant self-serving Twitter photo-ops, Pruitt should have spent his time actually administering his agency and preparing for, and helping communities recover from the kind of environmental disasters which accompany major storms like Harvey and Irma.


The Sad Irony of Trump’s Presidential Response to Hurricane Harvey

 The oblivious president

On Tuesday, August 29, as Hurricane Harvey lingered over Houston dumping an “unprecedented” four feet of rain, plus a few inches, the presidential entourage landed in Corpus Christi.

Three days earlier Hurricane Harvey came ashore north of Corpus, pounding the small community of Rockport as a Category 4 storm. South Texas took the brunt of what is becoming a new normal: other-worldly weather events. It’s hard to know how to respond to an unmitigated disaster. The president’s role as consoler-in-chief is critical in times of widespread tragedy, though awkward in the best of circumstances. The last thing local authorities need is the small army required to transport the president.

This is true of any president, a rare example of bipartisanship. What the president says, how he comports himself, is another matter. Much has already been written about President Trump’s narcissist-tinged, tone-deaf response while on the ground in Texas. But beyond his grating, bumptious manner, there is a much sadder irony in the president’s comments, revealing a stark disconnect between what he does and his understanding of what he is doing.

The best crisis ever

“Wow – Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500-year flood! We have an all out effort going, and going well!” – Presidential tweet, August 27, 2017

Wow indeed, as Harvey is third “500-year-flood” to hit the Houston area in as many years and by far the worst. Never fear, Donal Trump is on it. Acknowledging it was too soon to congratulate each other, President Trump boasted at a meeting in Austin on Tuesday that his administration would meet the “epic” 15 trillion gallons of water dropped on Houston “better than ever before.” Years from now people will say “this is how to do it.”

I hope so because with each passing year, meeting unprecedented natural disasters will demand the best of us. Aging infrastructure stretched beyond its design parameters, human displacement, resource constraints, economic, physical, and emotional devastation. We best be prepared.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Trump has no plan, and it’s the best

Mr. Trump rode to power on a populist message of remembering the forgotten Americans overrun by a world changing too fast. Promising to make us all “sick and tired of winning,” people ate it up. At least enough people to get him elected. The problem with winning the presidency is then you become president.

The job of selling is done, now it is time to execute. To execute you need a plan. President Trump’s lack of a coherent plan for his presidency is evident in his approach to climate change, though hardly exclusive to this one issue.

To be clear, there is nothing President Trump could have done to prevent Harvey’s devastation. Any poor decisions contributing to the storm’s impact were made long before he became president. But decisions he and his cabinet are now implementing ensures more devastation, more human and economic loss, and more “never before witnessed” catastrophic weather in the decades to come.

Trump’s plan? Undo whatever Obama did, including a policy mandate to improve infrastructure resilience in high-risk flood plains.

The Trump administration believes it best to rebuild infrastructure destroyed in Harvey-like storms just “as it was before.” Like it will never be again.

If not now, then when?

There is one thing Harvey makes crystal clear, at least to me. We are out of time. The energy, heat, and water vapor producing Harvey was baked into the system many years ago. The sprawling concrete urban planning of cities like Houston is considered adequate, even as the city drowns.

Yet, the narrative from the Trump administration is that discussing the risk of climate change during natural disasters is “opportunistic.” A chance for the left wing media to politicize the issue, thereby diabolically politicizing the issue.

The obvious fact is that Trump and his people will never find a good time to discuss climate change. Not now, not ever. Expunge the phrase from official documents, defund research, turn off satellites monitoring the biosphere. Make false promises to coal miners and blame it on “fake news” when it doesn’t work out. This is the world in which Donald Trump lives. A world very different from the one you and I will find ourselves all too soon. For many that world has already arrived on their doorstep with a vengeance.

The sad irony of Donald Trump

It’s safe to say that President Trump does not “believe” in climate change. Or maybe he does. He softened his rhetoric about the Paris Agreement when treated well in Paris and allowed to flirt with Macron’s wife.

From my distant (but all too close) perch, it seems Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in much beyond notoriety and monetary wealth. He says things like “they’re gonna take out the coal and clean it.” As if there’s a job for someone with a scrub brush and determination to make that coal sparkle.

He withdraws the United States from the hard-won Paris Agreement, claiming the rest of the world will no longer be laughing at us.

In Trump’s world, the subtle nuance of a truly empathetic response to Hurricane Harvey, perhaps to anything, is simply beyond his abilities. He can’t make the connection between a successive series of unprecedented extreme weather events and a changing climate.

President Trump is oblivious. The real tragedy is that he just doesn’t care.

We can still mitigate the impacts of climate change headed our way. We must. Be we focus on adaptation to a new world.

Hang on, we’re in for a tough ride.

Images credits: U.S. Department of Defense

The Message of a Better Tomorrow Resonates Across the U.S. (and the globe)

Last month I spoke with Cyril Dion, a French filmmaker, writer, and activist. Dion co-produced the documentary Tomorrow with the actress, director, screenwriter, and musician Melanie Laurent.

Tomorrow won the 2016 French César for Best Documentary. After a successful release in more than 20 countries, the film made its U.S. debut in the Bay Area the weekend of April 14.  When we talked the following Monday, a tired yet determined-looking Dion said he was encouraged by the overwhelming enthusiasm for the film’s message of solutions and empowerment.

That enthusiasm continues. In a nation beleaguered by uncertainty and antagonism, Tomorrow has clearly struck a chord across the U.S.

As of this writing, Tomorrow is held over in  NY, LA, San Diego, San Francisco, among other cities.

The road to Tomorrow

Like any mother, Melanie Laurant wants a better future for her childrenShortly after Laurent gave birth to her first child, she learned of the  2012 Nature article, Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.  Co-authored by Anthony Barnosky,  a paleobiologist, professor emeritus of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and currently executive director of the Stanford Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve, the paper’s stark warning of a rapidly approaching biological tipping point was an alarming awakening for a new mother in the 21st century.

We can avoid the severely – and suddenly  – altered world that potentially awaits Laurent’s child and the two billion other children expected on the planet by 2050. But the time to act, the article warned, is now. Waiting until after an ecological collapse to find viable solutions will be too late.

Fighting catastrophe fatigue

With that dire message, Laurent, Dion and a crew of four set out to tell a different story. We can imagine a better future for our children. If that sounds improbable, we need only look at what people all over the world are doing right now to shape the future of their families, communities, and the

The film acknowledges the urgent message from Barnosky’s work, and that of many others, but doesn’t dwell on the darkness. Instead, it focuses on active solutions.

Filmmaker Cyril Dion“People feel helpless… that they are too small to do anything about it,” Dion says.

“I really wanted to make a tool to empower people. To show them that we can start where we are and we can also build a movement.”

A better world, the film posits, can rest on four pillars, looking at each one in turn:

    • Agriculture:  For anyone living in the industrialized world and born after 1950, the idea of anything other than industrial farming is an esoteric “niche.” It’s hard to imagine that the exact opposite might be true.

    • Energy: A low carbon energy economy is the right side of history. A continued “business-as-usual” reliance on high-carbon, extractive energy sources is the wrong side of history. Everybody know that. Well, almost everybody.
    • Education: The chances of success for a single individual, and thus an entire society, rests on a good education.

    • Democracy: How we choose our leaders demands an informed and engaged citizenry (see above). Oligarchy is what happens when people don’t know or don’t care, allowing fear and emotion to dictate their decisions.

There are innovative solutions for each. Solutions not only “being tried,” but working and expanding.

People from all walks of life making a better Tomorrow, today

A world reimagined

In another interview yesterday, Barnosky told me he remains optimistic. Messages like the one in Tomorrow are important, he says. It demonstrates  the groundswell of community action globally, suggesting a different narrative for a “global economy.” One that starts with people and communities, connected through a shared belief in their own power to effect change. Not by “saving the world,” but by working in their own communities, their own little plot of land. Think globally, act locally.

But it’s also about being present, here and now, and imagining the kind of future we want.

“If we can imagine the world differently,” says Dion, “it’s going to have an impact on the economic and political structure.”

“We are human beings, so we imagine first. We first need to change the vision, the narrative of the world.”

Tomorrow shows a world reimagined, but real.

Tomorrow – Trailer from Under The Milky Way on Vimeo.