Oklahoma is 1,400 miles from the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Md., halfway across the country. But the distance didn’t matter to Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt, after the Environmental Protection Agency drew up a plan to clean the polluted bay. He tried to stop it.
Pruitt is now President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the EPA, the agency that Pruitt has railed against, suing it more than a half-dozen times over regulations on clean water and clean air that he disagreed with.
As he prepares to face a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, environmental groups that fought to clean the bay decades ago, when its rockfish disappeared and crab stocks plummeted, are worried. And advocates for clean water in Oklahoma say they should be, given Pruitt’s record while he was responsible for waterways there.
“Scott Pruitt could sink the Chesapeake Bay cleanup,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “At a crucial point, just as the bay is starting to show progress under EPA’s new bay cleanup plan, Trump picks someone to lead EPA who — as Oklahoma attorney general — went out of his way to file a legal action to try to block that cleanup.”
But a spokesman for Trump’s presidential transition team said Tuesday that Pruitt recently assured Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that he supports the multistate approach to the bay restoration. The two met last week partly to discuss the nominee’s position on the cleanup plan.
The spokesman clarified that Pruitt opposes any approach that would make the Chesapeake Bay a blueprint to clean watersheds elsewhere in the country. The EPA has repeatedly said over the years that it had no intention to take the plan nationwide. It also emphasized that point throughout the court proceedings.
A federal judge ruled in 2013 that the EPA has the authority to limit pollution that runs into the Chesapeake under the Clean Water Act. The federation that lost that lawsuit is now hailing Trump's choice, and some farmers who struggled to pay for infrastructure to lower chemical and manure runoff from their land say they believe that the scales have tipped in their favor.
“I will say that I think . . . Mr. Pruitt’s strong suit is he comes from a state agency. He wants to work collaboratively with the states and be a little less top-down than” the Obama administration, said Don Parrish, senior director of congressional and regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“We all can agree that we want a healthy, functioning, clean Chesapeake Bay,” Parrish said. “Our farmers recreate on the bay; they enjoy the bay. There was nothing about the cleanup farmers disagreed with. Where we differed from the EPA was the reading of the statute, what should be EPA’s . . . authority and where that authority should go.”
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Mark O’Neill, said it “strongly supports the nomination” because it thinks Pruitt “will provide some common-sense leadership to the agency to work to improve the environment without creating unnecessary and unlawful regulations that threaten the livelihood of farm families across the United States.”
The farm lobbies say the bay cleanup should have been driven by the six states in its watershed — Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York — along with Washington.
Those states and the District had tried to collaborate on several cleanups since the 1980s and failed to make much of a dent in the nutrient pollution that plagued the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other groups sued the EPA in 2009 for failing to restore the bay’s health under the Clean Water Act, forcing a settlement that led to the current cleanup plan that started the following year and is set to end in 2025.
Nutrient pollution, primarily phosphorous from human and animal waste and nitrogen from farm chemicals, is a deadly cocktail that causes algae to grow out of control and suck oxygen from water, killing animals trapped in the resulting dead zone.
Under the EPA cleanup, the bay has improved, according to the foundation's most recent biennial "State of the Bay" report. "We believe the Bay is reaching a tipping point," the report said.
“Each of the three indicator categories — pollution, habitat, and fisheries — has improved,” the report stated. Although grades as low as D-plus in each factored into an overall grade of C-minus, this was the best mark since the study series began.
“We are seeing the clearest water in decades, regrowth of acres of lush underwater grass beds, and the comeback of the Chesapeake’s native oysters, which were nearly eradicated by disease, pollution, and overfishing,” according to the report.
Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, said he won’t judge Pruitt before he takes office. “What we’re going to try to do is to assume until proven wrong that Scott Pruitt will see the success of the program . . . and will want to take credit for the next phase of success.
“The cleanup is dramatic,” Baker said, noting that it is allowing the bay’s health to recover. “This is moving forward with great success. I can only hope the new administration won’t try to undercut it.”
Massive algae blooms and dead zones occur in waters throughout the United States. Conservation groups in Oklahoma are familiar with them. The state attorney general before Pruitt, Drew Edmondson, sued neighboring Arkansas for failing to adequately regulate manure runoff from hundreds of chicken farms that fouled the Illinois River downstream in Oklahoma.
Edmonson battled Arkansas and its poultry farms until he left office in 2011. But Pruitt took a different tack, opting to negotiate with the Arkansas state attorney. The talks led to a study that found that Oklahoma's pollution limits were being violated as a result of upstream waste. Pruitt agreed to allow Arkansas to voluntarily undertake a cleanup, rather than enforce action through litigation.
Ed Brocksmith, director of Save the Illinois River, said Pruitt's relaxed approach to enforcement did not do nearly enough to lower pollution in Oklahoma's waters. But he looked at Pruitt's appointment with some optimism. "Having an Oklahoman in such a high administrative position could be an advantage to us in protecting our clean water," he said.
But Brocksmith said his group has concerns "because of his close association to the farm bureau and his opposition to EPA rules and regulations. What's the saying, hope springs eternal?"
Johnson Bridgwater, director of the Sierra Club's Oklahoma chapter, was not as hopeful. He said environmentalists who want to see the goals of the bay cleanup fulfilled should be worried.
"If you look at how Pruitt handled a similar water pollution case in Oklahoma, and knowing he openly opposes EPA making these types of improvements in the state, they should not expect too much drive in the EPA continuing work in the Chesapeake Bay under his leadership."