Former EPA official sounds off
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August 07, 2017
Former EPA official sounds off

EPA staff who left the Agency after President Donald Trump installed Scott Pruitt as administrator have been publicly voicing concerns about the new direction the Agency is taking. One such assessment by a former and long-tenured EPA senior official is specific, thorough, and highly critical of Pruitt’s priorities and actions. Her statement was made public by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

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Before her departure, Elizabeth Sotherland directed the Office of Science and Technology under EPA’s Office of Water, which has a major role in the development and coordination of water pollution control programs. According to PEER, Sotherland, who has a PhD in Environmental Science and Engineering, worked for the Agency for 30 years in both the water and Superfund programs after holding jobs in the private sector and with state and local government.       

In what appears to be a farewell message to her colleagues, Sotherland says that the EPA has “been the guiding light to make the ‘right thing’ happen for the greater good.” She then adds that “today the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth. The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities.”

Sotherland makes the following points about the top regulatory and environmental priorities of Trump and Pruitt.

States’ rights

Regarding Pruitt’s assertion that, in Sotherland’s words, the EPA is “acting outside legal mandates and running roughshod over states’ rights,” she says the Agency has always followed a cooperative federalism approach since most environmental programs are delegated to states and tribes who carry out the majority of monitoring, permitting, inspections, and enforcement actions.

“Under the new federalism, however, the President’s [fiscal year (FY) 2018] budget proposes cuts to state and tribal funding as draconian as the cuts to EPA, while at the same time reassigning a number of EPA responsibilities to the states and tribes,” Sotherland adds. “If they want to maintain their current level of monitoring, permitting, inspections, and enforcement, states will have to increase taxes and establish new user fees. Even if they are able to do this over time, the proposed FY18 budget cuts to state, tribal and federal environmental programs would result in thousands of jobs lost in the short term, in EPA, state and tribal governments, and the private environmental consulting firms which support those governmental agencies.”

Regulations

Sotherland says the president’s requirement that for every new regulation issued, two regulations of equal or greater cost be repealed forces the EPA to “choose which Congressional law to ignore,” after which it will have to defend itself in costly litigation for doing so.

“Should EPA repeal two existing rules protecting infants from neurotoxins in order to promulgate a new rule protecting adults from a newly discovered liver toxin?” Sotherland asks. “Faced with such painful choices, the best possible outcome for the American people would be regulatory paralysis where no new rules are released so that existing protections remain in place.”

Industry approach

Sotherland notes that the EPA already has repeals of 30 rules under consideration. Coupled with internal budget cuts and defunding to the states, this is effectively an “industry deregulation approach based on abandonment of the polluter pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes and regulations.”

She adds: “Environmental catastrophes have often occurred when there was a decision to roll the dice and achieve a short term gain at the risk of disastrous long term costs—Hurricane Katrina where small savings in flood protection levees resulted in one of the most catastrophic flooding and environmental disasters in U.S. history and Flint, Michigan, where minimal costs for corrosion control or an alternative water supply were dwarfed by the subsequent lead contamination of children.”

Outlook

Despite her dim view of the current situation, Sotherland is optimistic.

“It may take a few years and even an environmental disaster, but I am confident that Congress and the courts will eventually restore all the environmental protections repealed by this administration because the majority of the American people recognize that this protection of public health and safety is right and it is just,” she says.

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