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By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

MURPHY, N.C., June 16, 2018 – What critics term Scott Pruitt’s brazen acts of extravagance as 14th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency are what sparked multiple investigations, according to the river of Internet coverage. Pruitt is an ambitious 50-year-old former Oklahoma attorney general who was appointed by President Donald Trump to head EPA in February 2017.

Meanwhile, the “U.S. Debt Clock” on the Internet puts that crisis math today at $21.2 trillion, or $64,510 per citizen.

Since Pruitt’s party repeatedly cited the national debt when not in control of the presidency and Congress, it’s surprising to see a department head appointee of that party incurring unusual office and administrative costs. I’ll have more on that in a minute.

The nation’s watersheds are so important in public life and health that it has been observed each might have been the basis for setting state boundaries. Mostly volunteer organizations act as watchdogs for their water quality. I’m one of those volunteers and believe this is a time in U.S. history for watersheds not to dismiss, but to document and grasp, what Pruitt advocates. How pervasive has his influence been in his first 14 months heading EPA?

There are many government agencies affecting the day-to-day work of this Hiwassee River watershed in north Georgia and far western North Carolina, and in Internet sites of a key group of three of them, I can’t use their search boxes to find the words “Scott Pruitt.” These are:

TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based federal-agency that is an operator across 8 states of 8 fossil plants; 3 nuclear plants; 29 hydro plants; 1 pumped storage hydroelectric plant; 9 natural gas combustion-turbine plants; 7 natural gas combined-cycle plants; 1 diesel-generator site; 15 solar energy sites; and 1 wind-energy site: “We are committed to clean air and a clean water supply for our region, as well as historical, cultural and environmental protection. This means we take care of our 293,000 acres of land and 11,000 miles of shoreline.”

GA. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION DIVISION: “We “protect and restore Georgia’s environment. We take the lead in ensuring clean air, water and land” and

N.C. DEPT. OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY: “We are the lead stewardship agency for the protection of North Carolina’s environmental resources.”

There are segments of the American electorate that are sharply divided from multiple niches calling on Pruitt to resign from EPA — or edging very close to doing so. Examples are:

  • Dale Bryk, who is senior energy policy director for the National Resources Defense Council, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes: “You cannot say that you care about clean water, clean air, or getting toxins out of food and our lifestyle, and (that you) support Scott Pruitt”;
  • Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, said in the same TV segment: “This is an administration that is pay to play… (There is) the utter contempt for the EPA, an agency that is supposed to protect air, health, water and food. Instead, they’re selling it off to corporations”;
  • William Ruckelshaus, who was Richard Nixon’s appointee to be first to head EPA in 1970, serving, until 1973, and later receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, told the New Yorker: “Pruitt and the people he’s hired to work with him don’t fundamentally agree with the mission of the agency. They seem more concerned about costs associated with regulations.”
  • Sixty-four members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three members of the U.S. Senate want Pruitt’s resignation from office;
  • (Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said on “The Laura Ingraham Show” that Pruitt needs to put management problems behind him, otherwise an alternative “would be for him to leave that job.” However, Inhofe later told the Washington Post he wasn’t asking Pruitt to resign);
  • Felice Stadler of the Environmental Defense Fund charged that Pruitt tried to eliminate EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice; planned reductions in smog and climate pollution limits; and “sought massive (funding) cuts in the lead risk program;”
  • Joining SELC last month in asking for an extension of the public comment period for rule-making transparency in regulatory science were groups such as Clean Air Carolina, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, North Carolina Conservation Network, Carolina Wetlands Association, Mountain True, Alabama Rivers Alliance, Altamaha Riverkeeper, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Coosa River Basin Initiative, Ogeechee Riverkeeper, Sound Rivers and Potomac Riverkeeper Network;
  • Former EPA employees wrote Pruitt urging him to re-think his policy that “essentially censors science;” and
  • Southern Environmental Law Center said Pruitt sought to “fundamentally re-organize federal agencies responsible for managing federal public lands, including U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

This week, CNN’s Clara Foran and Eli Watkins described Pruitt extravagances and alleged secrecy, including that he:

  • Installed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office;
  • Authorized large raises for aides and, according to The Atlantic, “defied the White House” in doing so;
  • “Frequently traveled home to Oklahoma on the taxpayers’ dime”;
  • Was “constantly accompanied by security guards, even on personal trips he made to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl;’
  • Spent $30,000 on security for a trip to Italy;
  • Lived for about six months in a condo owned by a health care lobbyist; and
  • Pruitt was said by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to be deliberately avoiding creating written records of meetings and corporations

As Oklahoma attorney general in 2011-17, Pruitt sued EPA 13 times.

He has a goal, according to William Ruckelhaus and Margaret Talbot, of slashing costs that corporations pay to comply with environmental regulations. Talbot of the New Yorker also wrote: “It’s an open secret in Washington D.C. that Pruitt would like to become Attorney General if President Trump fires Jeff Sessions.

Callie Moore is executive director of the 22-year-old Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition. In response to my request to interview the organization’s board of directors on this topic, she said: “Yes, you’re welcome to come (to the meeting), but I don’t know how much information you’ll get (about Pruitt and his impact at EPA) because state and local policies have so much more influence on our ability and resources to work… As far as I know, EPA’s regular grant funding programs related to water are still available.”

I urge every chief executive and lobbyist to weigh the consequences of confounding aspects of American life that governments confront in environmental law. In this particular watershed in the Blue Ridge Mountains, might weakened regulations affect their own families’ well-being and health?

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., was a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer/donor and recipient of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. Tom died on December 28, 2020.