The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: EPA watchdog to probe Scott Pruitt's pet Superfund project

with Paulina Firozi


They're investigating former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt's first-class flights. They're looking into two large pay raises given to political appointees that Pruitt brought into the EPA from Oklahoma. They've already finished a probe into a spike in his spending on security guards compared with past administrators.

Most of the inquiries opened by investigators at the EPA's Office of the Inspector General into Pruitt concern suspected wasteful spending. Fewer of them touch on the agency's actual policy work.

Now, the agency's internal watchdog has opened an audit of a task force formed by Pruitt meant to fix the EPA's Superfund program. On Friday, the inspector general's office announced it wants to know if any law or other rule was broken when the EPA convened and ran the task force last year. 

Early in his tenure, Pruitt said he wanted to "prioritize" the EPA's Superfund program, responsible for cleaning up of contaminated sites nationwide. To do so, he established the Superfund Task Force to look into how to restructure the program to bring about "expeditious remediation" of dangerous sites nationwide while still reducing the "burden" on firms responsible for the waste.

The former EPA administrator and his supporters saw those efforts as a way to bring the Superfund program back to its "rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission," as Pruitt once put it in a staff memo, after the agency went beyond its statutory capacity by addressing issues like climate change.

At the end of last year, the EPA identified 21 Superfund sites that needed "immediate and intense" cleanup. Pruitt made pit stops near particularly hazardous Superfund sites, such as a nuclear waste dump in Missouri called West Lake,  to reassure residents.

Pruitt's critics, however, saw the new policy emphasis as more of a public-relations stunt meant to shift attention from his favoritism for polluting businesses. They point to the appointment of Albert "Kell" Kelly, a former Oklahoma banker banned from the banking industry, to lead the task force as evidence that Pruitt was not taking the effort seriously. 

Kelly's task force operated in relative secrecy. The group wrote down no minutes of its meetings, the agency said when pressed for documents through a Freedom of Information Act request. The only access the public has had to the group's work is a list of recommendations released in July. Kelly had resigned two months before.

letter from the inspector general's office announcing the probe, posted on the watchdog's website, did not name Kelly. But investigators indicated that an "anticipated benefit" of the probe is boosting "public participation and transparent science in EPA’s decision-making."

Cleaning up hazardous industrial sites to the point where they can be removed from the Superfund list is a costly and time-consuming affair, making it difficult to gauge Pruitt's success with revamping the program during his short 16-month tenure. Pruitt resigned in July amid numerous accusations of waste and mismanagement. 


— The incredible shrinking EPA: The EPA's workforce has shrunk nearly 8 percent  since the beginning of the Trump administration. Records show that in 18 months, nearly 1,600 workers have left the agency, and fewer than 400 have been hired, The Post’s Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin and Andrew Ba Tran report. The agency has lost at least 260 scientists, 180 “environmental protection specialists,” and 106 engineers, and is now at levels not seen since under the Reagan administration.

All of these is by the Trump administration's design. “With nearly half of our employees eligible to retire in the next five years, my priority is recruiting and maintaining the right staff, the right people for our mission, rather than total full-time employees,” Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler told The Post.

— Trump administration opens more wildlife refuges to hunting: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Friday announced the expansion of hunting and fishing in 251,000 new acres at 30 wildlife refuges. Fish and Wildlife Services said the move will bring the total number of refuges allowing hunting to 377 and the total number of fishing refuges to 312. “American sportsmen and women contribute over a billion dollars a year to fund conservation,” Zinke said in a statement. “Without hunters and anglers, we wouldn't be able to conserve wildlife and habitat."

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said Sept. 9 that he has ordered emergency preparedness measures as Hurricane Florence approaches the state. (Video: Reuters)

— East Coast braces for major storm: Florence strengthened once again into a hurricane over the weekend and has intensified overnight, tracking toward the East Coast with “inevitability rarely seen in storms several days away from landfall,” The Post’s Brian McNoldy and Jason Samenow report. The National Hurricane Center on Monday morning warned the storm was forecast to “become a strong Category 4 storm before making landfall along the Southeast or Mid-Atlantic coast on Thursday,” Samenow and McNoldy report. “With each passing flight into the eye of the storm and every new forecast from the global weather models, it is increasingly unlikely Florence will turn out to sea and spare the Eastern Seaboard from potentially devastating storm surge, flooding and wind.”

Preparations are underway for possible impact in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, The Post’s Kristine Phillips reports. “Make your plans now. You have to get your medicines ready to go, if you have prescriptions you need to get filled,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said during a Sunday news conference, warning citizens to prepare to evacuate. “Make sure you lock things up because you may not be coming home for several days.”

— Florida's toxic red tide moves north: The toxic algae bloom that has claimed hundreds of sea turtles and dozens of dolphins has moved farther north, killing now hundreds of thousands of fish in the Tampa Bay region, The Post’s Alex Horton reports. The red tide had mostly been south of Tampa Bay. “But samples of high concentration of the algae have been found in waters near Clearwater Beach in the past few days,” he reports. Already, seaside businesses across the state have taken a financial hit because the putrid algae makes beach-going at times unbearable.

— A Pacific plastic trap: Over the weekend, a 2,000-foot-long unmanned floating boom was deployed from San Francisco Bay in an effort to trap up to 150,000 pounds of plastic in its first year. In five years, nonprofit Ocean Cleanup wants to develop dozens more in an effort to clean half of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” hundreds of miles between California and Hawaii that’s home to about 1.8 trillion pieces of waste, the New York Times reports.

—  A new map of Antarctica: Last week, researchers released the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica, a high resolution terrain map of the southern continent, which the New York Times reports includes data “complete that scientists now know the height of every feature on the continent down to a few feet.” Observing how ice grows and melts on Antarctic glaciers will allow for a better understanding of sea-level rise.


— Through Russia with cargo: The Venta Maersk is a new vessel owned by Danish shipping giant Maersk and the first container ship in the world that will attempt to sail through the Northern Sea Route, a passage that “runs from the edge of Alaska to the top of Scandinavia along Russia’s desolate Siberian coastline,” The Post’s William Booth and Amie Ferris-Rotman report. The route is now navigable from July to October because of the rapid disappearance of Arctic sea ice attributed to climate change. It is a troubling development for the planet, but a promising one for commercial shipping interests that could bring a “melt-season alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal, trim weeks off transit times and slash fuel costs for vessels shuttling between ports in Europe and Asia — and the Americas,” Booth and Ferris-Rotman write.

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is set to visit Moscow starting Tuesday, Reuters reports, citing Russian media. He’s the most senior Trump administration official to visit Russia since the president met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Finland. Perry is also  set to meet with his counterpart Thursday. “Perry and [Alexander] Novak are also expected to discuss the situation on global oil markets in the context of cooperation between OPEC and non-OPEC countries, the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran and possible new restrictions on Russia,” per the report.

Correction: A previous version of this newsletter suggested President Trump met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Russia. The U.S. and Russian leaders met in Finland.

— The road ahead for Tesla: After footage emerged of Tesla chief executive Elon Musk smoking marijuana and drinking whiskey on a popular podcast online, two executives announced they will resign from the company, sending Tesla shares plummeting Friday, The Post’s Hamza Shaban reports. Musk smoked pot with comedian Joe Rogan during an interview on the show, which took place in California. Recreational marijuana consumption is legal in the state, but prohibited for those with government security clearances. 

— Volkswagen investors want $11 billion in damages: The automaker will have to face its investors in trial in Germany starting on Monday as they seek nearly $11 billion in damages over charges they should have been informed about the company’s diesel scandal, Reuters reports. “Shareholders representing 1,670 claims are seeking compensation for a slide in Volkswagen’s share price triggered by the scandal, which broke in September 2015,” per the report.

— A pipeline spill in Indiana: The Houston-based Buckeye Pipe Line company said one of its pipelines spilled more than 8,000 gallons of jet fuel into a river in Indiana. The pipeline was shut down when a pressure issue was detected Friday, the Associated Press reports. “The fuel spilled into the St. Marys River in Decatur, a community of about 9,500 people roughly 100 miles northeast of Indianapolis,” per the report, which adds the EPA said it's monitoring air in the surrounding area and water quality downstream.



  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on the federal Columbia River Power System.
  • The Heritage Foundation holds an event on “Improving the Implementation of the Endangered Species Act."

Coming Up

  • The Atlantic Council holds an event on “The Southern Gas Corridor and the Future of European Gas Supply” on Tuesday.
  • The Wilson Center’s Global Women’s Leadership Initiative holds an event on “Women Policy Leaders Driving Change in Global Climate Policy” on Tuesday.
  • The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment hold an event on “Leading Across the Energy Sector” on Wednesday.
  • The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds a hearing on evaluating federal disaster response and recovery efforts on Thursday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology subcommittees on oversight and on the environment hold a joint hearing on “Examining the Underlying Science and Impacts of Glider Truck Regulations” on Thursday.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee holds a hearing on emerging transportation technologies on Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on U.S. LNG in meeting European energy demand on Thursday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on nuclear technology on Thursday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment holds a hearing on the air quality impacts of wildfires on Thursday.

— The Spix's macaw now only exists in captivity (and cartoons): A new study in the journal Biological Conservation found that the brilliantly blue Brazilian bird, central to the plot of the 2011 animated feature "Rio," is now officially extinct in the wild.