On Feb. 17, the U.S. Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Amid objections from environmental groups, current and former EPA employees, and Senate Democrats, the Senate voted 52-46, primarily along party lines.
Pruitt, who began serving as Oklahoma attorney general in 2011, sued EPA more than a dozen times during the Obama Administration to challenge air and water rules. The incoming agency head has opposed EPA limits on carbon dioxide from power plants, and he has objected to rule-making that would overhaul the agency’s chemical plant risk management program.
The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade association, issued a statement congratulating Pruitt on his confirmation, saying the group looked forward to working with the new administrator on the implementation of the revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was enacted last year.
“Efficient and effective implementation of the Act will restore public confidence in EPA’s regulation of chemical safety, and will promote American innovation and competitiveness,” ACC said.
On Feb. 16, as the Senate debated Pruitt’s confirmation, an Oklahoma district court ordered Pruitt’s Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General to release thousands of e-mails between Pruitt and oil and gas companies that plaintiffs argued could reveal conflicts of interest.
Senate leadership earlier in the week denied a request from Democrats to delay Pruitt’s confirmation vote in light of the pending court decision.
Calls to severely cut EPA’s staff or terminate the agency altogether go before Pruitt as he takes the agency reins. Congressman Matthew Gaetz (R-Fla.) introduced a bill on Feb. 3 that would end the 46-year-old EPA on Dec. 31, 2018.
On Feb. 1, Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced industry-favored legislation that would levy the Congressional Review Act to overturn a chemical plant safety regulation that EPA finalized in late December. The rule modifies the agency’s Risk Management Program in response to a West, Texas, warehouse explosion involving ammonium nitrate that killed 15 people.
In a Feb. 10 letter to EPA, House lawmakers requested details about agency efforts to identify and reduce “administrative waste.” Similar letters were sent to the Commerce, Energy, and Health & Human Services departments.
A series of executive actions, including a memorandum that ordered federal agencies to delay implementation of recently published final regulations, a memorandum that ordered a federal hiring freeze for civilian employees, and directives that temporarily halted EPA grants and restricted external communication, created uncertainty for EPA employees during the first days of the Trump Administration.
On Feb. 15, nearly 800 former EPA employees sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressing concern about Pruitt’s qualifications to serve as EPA administrator.
John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents more than 10,000 EPA employees nationwide, tells C&EN that current employees have been contacting their senators in response to Pruitt’s nomination. The federal Hatch Act permits off-duty federal employees to express concern about political issues.
“They can do that as long as it’s on their own time,” says O'Grady, a biochemist who began working at EPA during the Reagan Administration. “Our people are dedicated to the mission of protecting human health and the environment.”