Thomas H. Kean
Environmental Defense Fund
President Richard Nixon, who joined with a Democratic Congress nearly 50 years ago to create the Environmental Protection Agency, said then that clean air and water were “the birthright of every American” and that restoring nature was “a cause beyond party and beyond factions.”
Safeguarding our health and our environment has always enjoyed broad support in both political parties and among the American people. Thanks to the E.P.A.’s diligent work, our air and water are significantly cleaner, and because of that, Americans live longer, healthier lives. It is a heritage from which both parties can draw pride.
But that legacy is now in danger.
The current administrator of the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt, built his political career by attacking clean-air and clean-water rules. Now in charge of the agency, he is tearing down those protections, dismantling the E.P.A., appointing or nominating industry insiders to oversee their former businesses and blocking scientific input.
For the sake of our children’s health, it’s time for Scott Pruitt to go.
Mr. Pruitt is jeopardizing the health and well-being of Americans, and many suspect he is doing it to feed his own political ambition. “You must be running for the presidency,” a conservative radio host said while interviewing Mr. Pruitt in August as he visited Iowa, the state with the first presidential caucuses. The more popular theory inside Washington is that he is lining up deep-pocketed backers to run in 2020 for the Senate seat held by the Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who is 83.
His use of taxpayer-funded weekend trips home to Oklahoma is being examined by the E.P.A.’s inspector general. His use of noncommercial and military flights to his home state and elsewhere at a cost to taxpayers of some $58,000 prompted questions from Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and others. (An E.P.A. spokesman has said that Mr. Pruitt’s travel was related to agency business and that he had no political agenda.)
Whatever his political ambitions may be, Mr. Pruitt’s regulatory rollbacks and delays have tangible health and safety risks. For example, he has put the brakes on a rule that had been sought by the Obama administration to make information about dangerous chemicals at plants more easily available to the public and local emergency responders. Mr. Pruitt fought the rule as Oklahoma’s attorney general, and in June, newly ensconced at the E.P.A., he delayed it by 20 months.
The postponement was no doubt good news to Arkema, a chemical company that had lobbied against the rule. Not long after, Arkema’s chemical plant near Houston caught fire as a result of Hurricane Harvey, sending 15 public safety officers who inhaled smoke there to the hospital.
Mr. Pruitt is also working to stifle the scientific advice that is so important for smart environmental policy. He has rigged the criteria for E.P.A. science advisory boards so that people funded by industry (or even by foreign governments) are more likely to qualify for appointment than academic experts. He has appointed as leaders of these panels people with industry ties and one who led the fightagainst tougher federal ozone standards.
And to satisfy his penchant for secrecy, he is installing — at a cost of nearly $25,000 to taxpayers — a secure phone booth in his Washington office to keep people, including staff members, in the dark. William Ruckelshaus, who served Presidents Nixon and Ronald Reagan as the E.P.A. administrator, has said that “Pruitt appears to be turning his back on a bipartisan tradition of transparent governance at the E.P.A.”
For months, Mr. Pruitt refused to disclose where he was going or whom he was meeting with. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we now know that he spends his days meeting with executives from companies, many with high-profile matters pending before the agency. He has elevated cronyism to new heights.
With Mr. Pruitt in charge, Americans are extremely dissatisfied with Mr. Trump’s handling of the environment — an approval rating of only 23 percent among independents, according to an August Fox News poll. Independents have long seen handling of the environment as a barometer of whether a candidate shares their values. When I was a governor, my environmental record cleaning up toxins and protecting wetlands was important for independent voters and helped me win re-election in New Jersey.
It’s no wonder that the White House had a meeting to figure out how to fix its green image. But rebranding isn’t enough.
President Trump needs a new leader at E.P.A. who listens to business but also respects the agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment.
I was delighted to hear President Trump promise to protect clean air and clean water in his first address to Congress. I understand that he wants a new direction at the E.P.A., but that doesn’t mean he should tolerate Mr. Pruitt’s ethical lapses and lack of judgment.
President Trump should fire Scott Pruitt. Our children and grandchildren deserve better.
Thomas H. Kean, the Republican governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990, is the vice chairman of the Environmental Defense Fund.