EPA Pick Pruitt Abandoned Environmental Protections in Oklahoma, Lawyers Say

Legal experts say Scott Pruitt did not pursue enforcement of environmental laws in favor of industries that were also among his biggest political donors.

Scott Pruitt answers questions at his Senate confirmation hearing for EPA administrator

At his Senate confirmation hearing for EPA chief, Scott Pruitt argued he had pursued cases to protect Oklahoma's environment as state attorney general. Credit: Getty Images

Environmental lawyers from Oklahoma joined the chorus of those pressuring U.S. senators to reject President Donald Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. They argue Pruitt abandoned environmental cases and regulation in his state, in favor of polluting oil, gas and agricultural industry interests.

The lawyers met with members from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works this week, rebutting Pruitt's claims during his confirmation hearing that he has taken steps to protect the environment.

Their criticisms go back to the beginning of Pruitt's tenure. Shortly after taking office in 2011, Pruitt dismantled the office's Environmental Protection Unit, established by his Democratic predecessor in 1996 to pursue violators of the state's environmental laws. The unit pursued dozens of cases against polluters, especially in the farming industry. In 1997, it helped establish the state's Environmental Crimes Task Force, which launched 142 investigations and 56 criminal prosecutions, according to the unit's former chief, Kelly Hunter Foster.

In his confirmation hearing last week, Pruitt referred to a list of environmental cases his office has pursued. That list cites 15 cases, all but three inherited from his predecessor.

"If you don't have the expertise to look for them, they're not going to come find you," said Foster, who became chief of the unit in 2001, and is now an attorney with the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance.

A spokesman for Pruitt did not respond to requests for comment.

The Senate vote on Pruitt's confirmation had not been scheduled as of Wednesday.

Pruitt also has not supported municipal environmental cases, the lawyers said. The city of Bethany last year sued two aerospace companies—Gulfstream  Aerospace and Rockwell Automation—for polluting groundwater with two degreasing solvents, trichloroethene and tetrachloroethene.

"This city of Bethany is clearly the type of case that previous attorney generals, that I'm aware of, would have gotten in involved with at the very least, or maybe even have taken it over," said David Page, a longtime environmental attorney representing Bethany in the case.

Page also recently filed a class action against the oil  services giant Halliburton, accusing the company of polluting groundwater in the southern Oklahoma city of Duncan.

"With regard to the Halliburton case, in my experience, they would have at least investigated to see if there's criminal conduct," Page added.

Since Trump announced his EPA pick earlier this month, news reports have underscored Pruitt's sustained attack on the agency he's been appointed to head and his apparent reluctance to enforce environmental regulation. As attorney general, Pruitt has pursued 14 lawsuits against the EPA, while receiving nearly $240,000 from the fossil fuel industry or associations that represent it. (ICN has documented Pruitt's deep ties to the industry, including its support for his political career.)

The agriculture industry also appears to have gotten favorable treatment.

Pruitt, who assumed the attorney general's post in 2011, has failed to pursue a 2005 lawsuit filed by his predecessor against Tyson Foods and a dozen other poultry companies, accusing them of polluting the scenic Illinois River in the northeastern part of the state. The Environmental Working Group, after taking a dive into campaign finance records, revealed that executives and lawyers for those companies gave more than $40,000 to Pruitt's 2010 election campaign.

The dispute over water pollution in the area goes back decades, as Oklahoma and poultry producers upstream in Arkansas have battled over who is responsible for cleaning it up.  In 2003, the states reached a resolution that gave Arkansas 10 years to impose mandatory limits on the amount of chicken manure that could be applied as fertilizer in the watershed.  From 2000-10, levels of phosphorus, the primary pollutant in chicken manure, fell by 70 percent.

That drop represented progress, but didn't meet standards set by the EPA in the 2003 agreement. Rather than enforcing the standards, Pruitt amended the 2003 agreement, asking for further study to determine appropriate phosphorus targets and giving polluters additional time to meet them.  

The National Chicken Council, which represents the poultry industry, did not return a request for comment.

In his confirmation hearing last week, Pruitt defended that decision, citing it as a victory for the state's waterways. But according to the language of the agreement, the states agreed "not to institute or maintain administrative enforcement action, judicial proceedings or take regulatory actions contrary" to the amendment.

"He extended the compliance period and said he wouldn't sue," Page said.

In his confirmation hearing, Pruitt also said he had done "nothing to undermine" the 2005 case against the poultry industry for polluting the river, and had only "filed briefs in support of the court."

A review of the docket, Page noted, shows no such briefs.

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