Nearly 450 former Environmental Protection Agency employees Monday urged Congress to reject President Trump’s nominee to run the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, even as current employees in Chicago sent the same message during a noon rally.
“We retirees, we tend to like to lay low. But this has gotten a bunch of us quite concerned,” said Bruce Buckheit, whose three decades in government included working in the EPA’s enforcement division under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Republicans have defended Pruitt as a capable leader who will return the agency to its core mission of protecting the environment while rolling back what they see as years of regulatory overreach that has unnecessarily burdened industry. A coalition of nearly two-dozen conservative advocacy groups has backed his nomination, insisting that Pruitt has “demonstrated his commitment to upholding the Constitution and ensuring the EPA works for American families and consumers.”
Buckheit was among the former agency officials who signed onto Monday’s letter imploring senators to vote against confirming Pruitt because of his opposition to the EPA in recent years. In lawsuits, Pruitt has challenged the agency’s legal authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters.
“Our perspective is not partisan,” the group wrote, noting that many of the 447 names on the letter had served as career employees under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “However, every EPA administrator has a fundamental obligation to act in the public’s interest based on current law and the best available science. Mr. Pruitt’s record raises serious questions about whose interests he has served to date and whether he agrees with the long-standing tenets of U.S. environmental law.”
The former officials said Pruitt “has gone to disturbing lengths to advance the views and interests of business” — a reference to his close ties to the fossil fuel industry, with which he often has sided in his cases against the EPA. “By contrast, there is little or no evidence of Mr. Pruitt taking initiative to protect and advance public health and environmental protection in his state.”
The controversial nomination advanced out of a Senate committee last week after Republicans used their majority to suspend committee rules and approve Pruitt despite the absence of all Democrats, who boycotted the nomination vote partly because of his anti-regulatory bent. He could be approved by the full Senate as early as this week.
Opposition to Pruitt from environmental groups and congressional Democrats has only grown more vehement since his confirmation hearing last month, in which he declined to say whether he would recuse himself from his ongoing cases against the EPA if confirmed as the agency’s new leader. In addition to those legal attacks, opponents have pointed to his substantial financial support from the oil and gas industry and his views on climate change as reasons he should not lead the agency charged with protecting the air and water of all Americans.
Even though the EPA was created under Richard Nixon, the agency’s employees have clashed in the past with Republican leaders, particularly under the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. But the prospect of Pruitt’s arrival has particularly shaken many employees, current as well as former, who fear that the agency’s authority could be undermined, its workforce slashed and important regulations weakened under his watch.
In an unusual move, EPA employees in the agency’s Region 5 office, headquartered in Chicago, participated in a downtown rally during their lunch hour on Monday and called on the Senate to reject the nomination and any efforts to roll back the agency’s authorities.
Although it was unclear exactly how many current employees attended Monday’s rally, both career employees and members of two advocacy groups, the Sierra Club and People for Community Recovery, demonstrated at the city’s Federal Plaza. More than 100 people showed up for the event, carrying signs that read, “Save the EPA,” “Science is Real” and “We want clean air and clean water!”
Organizer Nicole Cantello, chief steward of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, said employees are alarmed by Pruitt’s nomination and Trump’s environmental rhetoric overall.
“People are worried about losing their jobs because administration is interested in dismantling, or downsizing in the extreme, the EPA,” she said. Agency officials had sent out an ethics advisory that gave current employees guidance on what they could and could not do “when acting for their free speech rights,” Cantello added.
Judith Enck, an Obama appointee who recently left her post as head of the Region 2 office, said she had never seen “the level of concern at EPA that I’m seeing today.” Enck signed Monday’s letter because Trump’s choice of Pruitt “is an unprecedented assault on environmental protection,” she said, “not just on EPA as an agency, but on our country’s ability to enjoy clean air, clean water and a logical agenda on climate change.”
President Trump himself has said the environmental regulations put in place under President Obama are “a disgrace.” A key official helping with the Trump transition has suggested the agency’s workforce be cut from about 15,000 employees to 5,000. And a bill introduced by a freshman Republican congressman from Florida last week would dissolve the EPA altogether.