Pruitt’s Resignation a Chance for a Fresh Start at EPA

Embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has tendered his resignation, three months after we at the National Wildlife Federation called for his removal. He becomes only the second EPA Administrator to resign due to scandal.

As I told reporters yesterday, Pruitt’s departure offers the chance for a reset at the Environmental Protection Agency under new Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

Pruitt’s Resignation the Right Move

First, I want to say a huge thank you to each person across our One Federation family who helped make the case that the EPA requires ethical leadership committed to its mission and that Mr. Pruitt should resign. Hundreds of thousands of members spoke up for our wildlife, clean air and water, and public health.

As a science-based, non-partisan, collaborative organization, our opposition to Mr. Pruitt – first asking Senators to vote down his nomination in 2017 and then calling for his resignation – was not taken lightly. They were necessary because Mr. Pruitt’s priorities and actions diametrically opposed years of policy resolutions adopted by our affiliates.

This was not about politics, but basic conservation principles. We could not stand idly by as an individual sought to systematically dismantle the EPA, undermine the foundational role of science in decision-making, and reverse decades of bipartisan progress towards achieving clean air, clean water, and healthy soils. Further, his decisions repeatedly placed the health of Americans and wildlife at risk, as he embraced a pay-to-play culture with special interests and abused his position of authority for personal enrichment.

We took a stand to defend the health of all Americans and wildlife—and our actions and outreach helped build broad public awareness and calls for Pruitt’s ultimate resignation.

Why Pruitt’s Departure Matters

The mission of EPA—to protect human health and the environment—is both simplistically elegant and incredibly complex. The EPA Administrator has a sacred responsibility to protect the health of all Americans. This requires fulfilling clear legal obligations to faithfully implement the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Toxic Substance Control Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, and other bedrock environmental statutes. It necessitates that decisions are based upon sound science and that rules are promulgated through transparent public processes, without undue influence of special interests. It requires respecting and empowering its 14,000 professional public servants and partnering with the states as co-regulators in the uniquely American system of cooperative federalism. Mr. Pruitt exhibited none of these traits.

While much of the news coverage will focus on the sordid details of the seemingly endless scandals that embroiled Mr. Pruitt, we cannot lose sight of the damage done to the EPA as an institution and the hard work ahead. Too many top scientists have been forced out or silenced. Too many policies have been proposed for withdrawal or fundamental revision to appease special interests. Too many Americans, especially children, face greater health risks. Too many communities living with environmental injustices feel abandoned. Too many millions of acres of habitat and miles of waterways remain degraded from various sources of pollution. All of this must change and so our work is just beginning.

The Road Ahead for EPA

The incoming acting Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is someone who we’ve worked with for many years. While he began his career as professional staff at the Environmental Protection Agency and was a pragmatic Senate staffer (he helped forged several bipartisan environmental agreements through the Environment and Public Works Committee), he is unlikely to alter course significantly on policy. I expect his decision-making process will be more deliberative and inclusive of career staff, scientists, and stakeholders.

Ultimately, the administration’s anti-regulatory efforts will continue to the extent that’s legally defensible. We will continue to fundamentally disagree about the appropriate scope of the Clean Water Rule and the legal necessity of the Clean Power Plan following the endangerment finding—the fate of both will likely be decided by the courts or future administrations/Congresses.

That said, we do see opportunities for the National Wildlife Federation to make progress at the EPA under acting Administrator Wheeler:

  • We will continue to aggressively advocate that Congress provide the Agency sufficient resources and staffing levels to fulfill its mission.
  • We will work to restore the role of sound science and professional staff (headquarters, regional offices, and state agencies) in transparent decision-making processes.
  • We will encourage the Agency to make clean drinking water a top priority by investing in upstream source water protection and water infrastructure projects, cleaning up superfund and brownfield sites, and rigorously enforcing drinking water standards.
  • We will ensure that the Agency effectively implement the bipartisan reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (which our team worked hard to help become law in 2016), as intended by Congress.
  • We will continue to doggedly pursue reform of the corn ethanol mandate, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard. (We were finally successful last week at pushing EPA to release the long-overdue Triennial Report of the RFS’ environmental impacts, which clearly stated for the first time from a government agency that there are significant adverse habitat, wildlife, and water impacts from the corn ethanol mandate.)
  • We will push the Agency to re-evaluate its positions on cross-state air pollution, fuel economy standards, energy efficiency measures, and methane pollution.

Our Federation’s Work Continues

And so today, while we should celebrate a historic success in unseating someone unfit to lead the EPA, our work is far from over. Too many policies of the Administration continue to demonstrate disdain for sound science and disregard for public health. While there are, of course, much more effective and less burdensome ways to achieve key environmental outcomes, we cannot allow anti-environmental policies and anti-science process changes to become institutionalized—work that will likely become more difficult following the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Just as our Federation played a critical role in creating the Environmental Protection Agency by working with Bill Ruckelshaus during the Nixon Administration, we will be called upon again and again in the years ahead to help improve and strengthen the EPA, as well as the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We must ensure that these institutions become much more effective at fulfilling their conservation missions in ways that are more collaborative, more efficient, more innovative, more science-based, more predictable, and more transparent.

We’re confident we’ll be able to undo many of Mr. Pruitt’s attempts at gutting environmental protections through the courts, future Administrations, and future Congresses. But we must equally focus on rebuilding the professional, scientific, and technical capacity necessary to confront the escalating challenges facing our communities and wildlife.

Success demands no less.

Take Action

Please take a moment right now to call upon Acting Administrator Wheeler to focus the Environmental Protection Agency on its mission of protecting public health and the environment. A copy will be sent to your Senators to remind them of their duty to ensure that the EPA protects our environment and that a future nominee to lead the Agency is committed to upholding our nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

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