Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has resigned, amid an onslaught of financial and ethics scandals and widespread opposition to his campaign to roll back key environmental protections. President Trump announced Pruitt’s resignation via Twitter. Trump later told reporters, “Scott Pruitt did an outstanding job inside of the EPA. We’ve gotten rid of record-breaking regulations, and it’s been really good.” At the time of his resignation, Pruitt was facing more than a dozen federal investigations into ethical misconduct, ranging from lavish spending to asking subordinates to help his wife find a job. Just earlier this week, CNN reported Pruitt kept a secret calendar and schedule in an attempt to hide his meetings with many industry executives.
EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler will become the agency’s acting administrator. Wheeler is a former lobbyist for Murray Energy, the nation’s largest underground coal mining company. He’s also the former chief of staff for Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, who’s known as the most notorious climate-denying lawmaker in Washington. In one of his most famous stunts, Senator Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in 2015 in order to prove that global warming was a hoax
At the time of his resignation, Pruitt was facing more than a dozen federal investigations into ethical misconduct, ranging from lavish spending to asking subordinates to help his wife find a job. Just earlier this week, CNN reported Pruitt kept a secret calendar and schedule in an attempt to hide his meetings with many industry executives.
During his tenure, Pruitt also undertook a radical effort to reshape the EPA. The agency weakened Obama administration efforts to tighten fuel economy standards. It repealed Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed at slashing emissions from coal-fired power plants. The EPA also scaled back the way the federal government determines health and safety risks associated with the most dangerous chemicals on the market. And it attempted to block publication of a federal health study on a national water contamination crisis from the chemicals PFOA and PFOS, which are used in Teflon and firefighting foam. A number of key EPA officials have quit in protest during Pruitt’s tenure.
Well, for more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by two former EPA officials who have left the agency under Pruitt. Mustafa Ali is the former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency. And Chris Zarba is a career EPA employee, who retired in February after leading the agency’s Scientific Advisory Boards. Also joining us from Washington, D.C., is Kristin Mink, the mother and teacher in Washington, D.C., who confronted Pruitt earlier this week at a restaurant, calling on him to resign. Also with us, Emily Atkin, staff writer at The New Republic whose latest piece is headlined “Scott Pruitt Is Gone. His Assault on the Environment Continues.”
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Mustafa Ali. You were one of the first to quit the EPA when Scott Pruitt became its chief. Talk about your response. What do you think brought him down?
MUSTAFA ALI: Well, I think it was a number of things, Amy, that brought him down. Folks should definitely be focused on the policy and how the choices that were being made were placing our country and our citizens in much greater harm. So I think that that’s the first place that we should always start, because that actually affects public health and the environment. You know, the scandals that he was a part of also were just the extra added incentive for him to need to leave. I think that he actually didn’t understand what the job description was, which was to protect public health and the environment. So, if he couldn’t do that, he should have never accepted the position.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was the spark for you to leave, Mustafa Ali? And when was that? It was almost at the very beginning of his term.
MUSTAFA ALI: Yeah, I left on March the 8th of 2017. And, you know, I took a look at some of the decisions that were being proposed and actions that were being moved forward on. And I knew that the vulnerable communities that I had worked for – communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous populations – would sort of be placed in a much more dangerous situation by the things that they were proposing. So I knew that I could not be a part of that, and I decided to walk away.
AMY GOODMAN: Chris Zarba, you left in February. Talk about the reasons you left. You’re ex-director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
CHRIS ZARBA: Actually, I was planning on retiring a year before I really retired. And I had identified a number of excellent candidates that I would recommend for people to take my position when I retired. After the election, those people who were interested in the position backed down. And I actually decided to stay an additional year, because I truly believed in the agency and the mission of the Science Advisory Board, and I thought if I stayed another year, I could be helpful in helping the organization get through a very difficult time.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was your reaction yesterday when President Trump tweeted that Scott Pruitt was out?
CHRIS ZARBA: Well, my immediate reaction was – I mean, I think there’s 12 or 14 individual investigations on his ethical behavior. And while I think they all should continue, they really are quite trivial compared to some of the other things that Scott Pruitt was pushing for. And that’s why I’m here. And at the top of that list is the bill that he has proposed that’s called transparency in regulatory science. And the implications are huge to the health of the American public. And it’s important that that message get out there and people be aware of what’s happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the EPA Science Advisory Board and what was happening to it, Chris Zarba.
CHRIS ZARBA: So, the Science Advisory Board – anything that EPA does that is based on science of consequence, it really requires – sometimes it’s by law, and sometimes you just have to do it – an independent science review. So the Science Advisory Board consists of – and the panels and the standing committees underneath it – 200 to 300 nationally recognized scientists. They’re all cleared for ethics conflicts of interest. They come from industry, academia, state and local government. They conduct independent reviews, and they write reports that summarize the strengths and limitations of the science that the EPA is going to be using.
What happened in the past year, the rules of governing the Science Advisory Board changed quite substantially as a result of an October 31st directive from Scott Pruitt. And there were a variety of changes, but some of the key ones were that the term limit for SAB members went from six years to three. So each year we went from an 18 percent turnover rate to over a 36 percent turnover rate. The second thing was, is that any SAB member that had an active EPA grant needed to be terminated. So I had to pick up the phone and fire quite a few of these nationally recognized scientists. And at the same time, if these scientists had a grant from industry, there was no issue with that. It was only if you had an EPA grant. And the third and most concerning thing that we had to do is that in considering new members of the SAB, we couldn’t consider anyone that had an active EPA grant, which meant that a huge portion of some of the most qualified scientists in the nation could not even be considered for these positions. And when you put all those three things together, it certainly leads to the perception that the Science Advisory Board could be compromised, and it would make people question the reports that will be coming out in the coming months.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us who Steven Milloy is, the architect of the tobacco industry’s defense of the dangers of cigarette smoke?
CHRIS ZARBA: Yeah. So, in the past several years, Congress has tried to pass a bill called the HONEST Act. And it was an act that would apply just to EPA, and it would limit the kind of data that we could use to set policy. It never passed. But it then was proposed by Scott Pruitt, and it’s called the transparency in – transparency in regulatory science. And what that does is it prevents EPA from using any data where all the information is not made publicly available.
So, much of the data EPA uses is human subject data, where people, let’s say, in a community were accidentally exposed to contaminated drinking water. They were – got sick, had problems with that. It was found out, unfortunately, and then scientists would come in and study what happened and what exposures people had and what the consequences were. Well, while that was a terrible – those things are terrible, they do provide a unique opportunity for scientists to get real data on what’s safe – what the safe level is or dangerous level is for different contaminants. In getting the public to agree to let the scientists use their data, they frequently sign confidentiality agreements, which means that we, the scientists, cannot share the person’s name or phone number or address, so that they have that anonymity. And basically, this act is proposing that if all of that data isn’t made publicly available, scientists and EPA can’t use it to set regulations, which means that the vast majority of science that EPA has to set clean levels for different contaminants and classes of contaminants in the environment goes away, and all of those rules go away.
There was a recent study done by a group called the Environment Protection Network, and they calculated that if this law had passed 20 years ago, approximately 50,000 Americans would have died each year in the past 20 years. So, if you add that up, it comes out to about a million Americans could have died prematurely as the result of that bill. So, when I said earlier that the ethical issues with Scott Pruitt are trivial compared to some of these bigger issues, this is what I’m referring to. A million Americans is important.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Chris Zarba, ex-director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board – he left the EPA in February – and Mustafa Ali, one of the first to resign last year after EPA chief Scott Pruitt started. Well, yesterday, it was announced Scott Pruitt is out. When we come back, we’ll speak to the mother who confronted Scott Pruitt this week in a restaurant, demanding he resign. Stay with us.