EPA Employees Speak Out Against Pruitt and Trump’s Anti-Science Agenda
Sierra Club’s Jack Darin and PEER’s Jeff Ruch say that the workers who toil in anonymity are now on the streets protesting against Trump’s nominee and the threats to public and environmental health posed by the administration
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.
The Senate vote for Scott Pruitt to head up the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to be announced, but that hasn’t deterred EPA agency employees from protesting his nomination. On Monday, in what is likely to be the first public protest by government workers over one of President Trump’s appointments, employees joined a rally outside of the EPA’s Chicago office. The protest was organized by the local chapter of the Sierra Club against Pruitt’s appointment because of his ties to the oil industry and track record of suing the EPA over the environmental protection regulations.
Also, on Monday, almost 450 former EPA employees who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations sent an open letter to the U.S. Senate in opposition to Pruitt’s nomination, saying, “Mr. Pruitt’s record raises serious questions about whose interests he has served to date and whether he agrees with the long-standing tenets of U.S. environmental law.” The letter organized by the non-profit, non-partisan organization called The Environmental Integrity Project, went on to state, “While serving as Oklahoma’s top law enforcement officer, Mr. Pruitt issued more than 50 press releases celebrating law suits to overturn EPA standards to limit mercury emissions from power plants, reduce smog levels in cities and regional haze in parks, clean up the Chesapeake Bay and control greenhouse gas emissions.”
And with us to discuss why the EPA’s employees are rallying against Scott Pruitt’s nomination to head up the agency, we’re joined by Jack Darin, who is the Director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. He is a native Illinoisan and he’s also worked for more than 25 years protecting the state’s natural resources and advocating for policies that advance clean energy.
And we’re also joined with Jeff Ruch who is the Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values.
Gentlemen, we appreciate you both being here.
JEFF RUCH: It’s good to be here.
KIM BROWN: So, Jeff, let’s start with you. Because, literally, hundreds of former employees have sent a letter protesting Scott Pruitt’s nomination and then current EPA employees joined the protest at the EPA’s office in Chicago on their lunch hour. And also, as I understand, parks employees were tweeting en masse about climate change as all mention has been removed from the White House website and changes have been made to the EPA’s website on the link to human activity. So have we seen anything like this before in terms of public employees speaking out on climate change?
JESS RUCH: Well, we’ve seen employees speak out on climate change, but we haven’t seen employees go public, even on their own time, to oppose a presidential nominee. And certainly there’s a feeling among the employees that I talk to is that those employees are taking a career risk. They’re basically being marked for termination by taking a public stand. But many figure that they’re already marked for termination so they have nothing left to lose. And we’re only in week three… (chuckles) of the administration.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. And there’s talk also that Pruitt would dismantle the EPA from the inside. So, beyond the risk of their jobs being cut, why are the current EPA workers so concerned about the very real possibility of Scott Pruitt heading up their agency?
JEFF RUCH: Well, Mr. Pruitt’s made pretty clear what he’s against, but he hasn’t articulated at all what he’s for. And so there are a lot of functions that EPA performs. It’s not clear that in the Trump administration what, if any of those, will remain. And there are all sorts of rumors which may or may not have a basis that basically the program would be largely gutted and devolve back to the states.
KIM BROWN: And, Jeff, many of those who signed the open letter to the Senate who are now retired EPA employees served for decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents. So is Trump setting a new low for environmental protection represented by his choice of cabinet appointments, in your opinion?
JEFF RUCH: I’m not sure whether it’s high or low, it’s certainly different. Or, as one employee explained to me, when we asked about the future of his program, he said, “I have no idea. We’re in the clown car to crazy town.” So that’s where we are. We’re in the clown car to crazy town.
KIM BROWN: Sounds about right. So, Jack, let’s turn it over to you. Were you surprised at all at EPA employees, presumably at risk of losing their jobs, came out and joined the rally in Chicago?
JACK DARIN: Well, I’d echo what Jeff said — this is a first. You know, and these are people that don’t seek out controversy or the limelight. These are scientists, public health professionals, engineers, people that do very important work but they usually toil mostly in anonymity. And so, for them to take a public stand for this, you know, these are people who are trained and experienced at recognizing threats and I think that’s what they perceive right now. And that should be very alarming to all of us who depend, for the air we breathe and the water we drink, on the work that they do.
KIM BROWN: You know, climate change denier Republican Alabama Representative Gary Palmer has proposed a bill to amend the Clean Air Act so that, “The term ‘air pollutant’ does not include carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons or sulfur hexafluoride. Now, he’s called this “Stopping EPA Over-Reach Act of 2017.” This is house bill HR637. It would amend the Clean Air Act so all these same terms are not included in that. So the bill has already racked up 114 Republican co-sponsors.
So talk about the role that the EPA plays in protecting clean air and clean water and what sort of country would we be living in if the EPA was undermined doing this work?
JACK DARIN: Well, first of all, if politicians who are doing the work of the oil and the coal industries and the polluters, they can diminish science and try to legislate some sort of alternative scientific facts if they want to. But, unfortunately, really it doesn’t change the science, obviously. And also, just as a matter of law the Supreme Court ruled, during the Bush administration, that the pollution that’s causing climate change does threaten our health. And the Environmental Protection Agency has a mandate under the Clean Air Act, that President Bush the 1st, by the way, signed into law. They have to do something about carbon pollution.
Now, we expect that the Trump administration is going to do away with the specific rules that President Obama put in place to fight carbon pollution, but that doesn’t mean that EPA is off the hook from their legal obligation, as under President Bush’s Clean Air Act, to do something about it.
KIIM BROWN: You know, Donald Trump would have us believe that environmental regulations limit the economy and job growth, so how would you respond to that, Jeff?
JEFF RUCH: The empirical basis of a lot of the Trump initiatives are elusive. And certainly, for example, his call for kind of a regulatory freeze, a two-for-one — two regulations must be eliminated for one to be adopted — is not supported by any examples of a single necessary regulation. So you would think if you wanted to do that, you’d have hundreds of examples, but we haven’t heard one. The idea is to basically take campaign rhetoric and turn it into policy. And it’s also largely meaningless in the sense that nobody expects the Trump administration to develop a single environmental Republican health regulation. The regulatory machinery of the federal government in essence has been shelved.
KIM BROWN: Jack, what are your thoughts about what Donald Trump says in terms of regulation stifling the economy and job growth? What’s your take on that?
JACK DARIN: Well, I think anyone serious about creating jobs in America is going to be a big supporter of investing in environmental infrastructure, in putting men and women to work. Doing things like securing a safe drinking water supply.
You know, the tragedy that we saw in Flint last year and that is happening in cities across the country — because of our failure to enforce safe drinking water standards, because of our failure to invest in clean water infrastructure — this is not only immoral and an injustice to the people, particularly the children, who are being permanently harmed by pollution, but it’s also missing a tremendous opportunity to put our skilled workers to work protecting our public health.
You know, the movement to turn away from dirty sources of energy and reduce carbon pollution has already begun to work and we face this moment of potentially turning back at a time when more Americans are working in clean energy, in clean water and environmental technologies — working good jobs in these fields that cannot be exported — than ever before. And we have so much more room for growth in those industries if only we stay the course — let the professionals at the EPA do their job, we’ll be healthier for it, we’ll actually have a stronger economy as well.
KIM BROWN: Jeff, I understand that your organization is also providing support to government scientists who are coming under attack. So tell us about that.
JEFF RUCH: Well, that’s what we do. We’re a support service organization for people that work in these agencies at the state, local and federal level. And we operate sort of as a shelter for battered staff. We do a lot of whistleblower protection, we’ve represented a number of scientists, we’ve helped push stronger scientific integrity policies in these agencies. And so, a large part of the upcoming tension about not only EPA but these other agencies is the extent to which a regime of alternative facts will dictate what comes out of these government agencies versus the actual technical work that goes on by all these specialists. And so we expect to be busy.
And, among other things, we’re developing a program that will be representing employees who are facing lay-offs, federal employees, through a process called reduction-in-force. So we’re anticipating there will be substantial cutbacks later this fiscal year.
KIM BROWN: So, Jack what can the public do to push back as the Trump administration and Republican-dominated congress removes environmental protections one by one?
JACK DARIN: Well, the first thing we need to do is we need to stand up and say that Scott Pruitt, who has made a career out of attacking the EPA, is unfit to lead the EPA. The Senate has not yet taken up this confirmation, they’re expected to do that during the month of February. And so I would encourage you and everyone to reach out and demand that the Senate vote no on Scott Pruitt.
But the fact is, regardless of who the new leader of the EPA is going to be, the agency is going to come under attack. It’s going to come under attack from voices in the administration that are going to question the value of science, that are going to propose, we expect, decimating budget cuts. It already has come under attack from members of Congress. We need to tell our leaders that clean air and clean water, of course, are important to us, but we cannot take them for granted anymore. And we need to reject these and other attacks on the agency. And when the agency that’s looking out for us, when those career professionals stand up and say their word and something’s wrong, we need to stand with them. That’s what we did yesterday in Chicago and we’ll be doing it across the country.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. That’s Jack Darin, he is the Director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter, a native Illinoisan. He’s been working for over 25 years protecting the state’s natural resources. And we’ve also been joined by Jeff Ruch, who is the Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values.
Gentlemen, we want to thank you both for sharing your takes with us. Thank you so much.
JEFF RUCH/JACK DARIN: Thank you.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.