DALLAS, Texas (DTN) -- Speaking at an Earth Day Texas forum Friday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt refuted the notion his agency would sit idle under President Donald Trump's watch. He also challenged the argument that President Barack Obama's administration was good for the environment.
Pruitt pushed back on the comments of a few protestors who disrupted his event and attacked Pruitt's environmental record as Oklahoma attorney general, as well as his stances on issues such as climate change.
"When you look at the past administration, I ask you to consider something," Pruitt said. "Ask yourself, what did they achieve in terms of environmental outcomes?"
Pruitt cited that roughly 42% of the country doesn't meet EPA ozone standards, affecting roughly 140 million people. The number of Superfund sites -- locations that have been designated with contaminated soil from industry -- is at 1,322 such places and grew under President Obama, Pruitt said. Then there was less investment for water infrastructure, leading to situations such as the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan.
"So I ask you, this past administration, where are their outcomes that are so good?" Pruitt said. "But yet here we are beginning our term and we're trying to set a new path forward of actually having objectives we can all count and measure and provide outcomes that are tangible to the American people."
Pruitt spoke at Earth Day Texas, a three-day affair at the Texas State Fairgrounds that includes major speakers, entertainment and exhibits. It's the largest Earth Day event in the country, and to best describe the event, it's the chamber of commerce meets the environmental movement.
That cross of business types blending with green idealism creates natural conflicts. That was reflected as three different people disrupted Pruitt's forum by shouting out comments on climate change and problems they believe EPA is ignoring in Texas. One protestor shouted that Pruitt sued EPA to prevent improvements in air quality when he was in Oklahoma. Pruitt countered, "We had 13 or so lawsuits against the EPA as I was attorney general. The Sierra Club has sued the EPA a lot more than I have over the years, largely because of non-compliance and EPA not doing their jobs historically."
Pruitt characterized environmental improvements over the last four decades as a partnership between the states, industry and the federal government, though the administrator declined to acknowledge that industries nearly always resist any change reducing such pollutants. Instead, Pruitt pointed to the economic growth the country has seen while cutting back pollution over that time.
"I think what's happened over the last several years is we've been told we have to choose between jobs and protecting the environment," Pruitt said. "And I think that's a false choice."
Pruitt noted he had spent part of the week in Chicago looking at Superfund sites and had visited a coal plant in Missouri. He said his tour was "about getting back to the basics with respect to the mission of EPA. And to that end, we're really trying to set some metrics and objectives to achieve measureable outcomes in some key areas."
Regarding air quality, Pruitt said too much of the country is at "non-attainment" for EPA's standards for ambient air quality. "We can do better than that," Pruitt said.
Looking at the Superfund sites, Pruitt said some sites have been on the EPA clean-up list going back 30 to 40 years. Pruitt said those sites should be considered a priority for clean-up.
"Some of those sites, like the one I visited this week in east Chicago, have been on that list for quite some time," Pruitt said.
Pruitt also pointed to the national problem of water infrastructure, citing the most egregious example, Flint, Michigan, and its lead problem. Pruitt noted, however, there are communities around the country with poor water infrastructure that need repair.
"If we can get back to basic core missions in each of these key areas in air, land and water, and obviously it's something we want to do to ensure that the partnership with the states is preserved as well," Pruitt said.
Pruitt also noted that Trump's infrastructure plan, which is still in the works, would include significant investment to upgrade municipal water-treatment infrastructure.
One of the fundamental problems with EPA, Pruitt said, has been a breakdown in the federal-state partnership at EPA in its core mission areas. "There's been an attitude, a displacement if you will, of regulators at the state level partnering together to achieve good ends," Pruitt said. "Who wants that?"
Pruitt cited that EPA issued five federal implementation plans under the Clean Air Act in the three presidents prior to President Barack Obama. Pruitt said the Obama administration issued 56 such plans. "Now that says something. That says there's an indifference or an attitude of displacement with respect to states," Pruitt said. "I believe the regulators in Texas care about the air they breathe and the water they drink, and we need to partner with them to achieve good outcomes and not try to displace them."
Pruitt took questions from Ryan Sitton, a Republican member of the Texas Railroad Commission. Sitton said there is a misperception all Republicans hate regulation, and he asked Pruitt to define good regulation and bad regulation.
"Regulation, and this is a very profound statement, regulations ought to make things regular," Pruitt said. "Because those who are regulated want to know what is expected of them. And I think what has happened over the last couple of years is something I've referenced as regulatory pancaking."
Pruitt said EPA has a problem with issuing a rule and then two years later coming out and issuing another rule in a different section of the Clean Air Act that strands an investment or displaces the rule made two or three years prior.
"So you have industry out there investing capital to achieve good outcomes, and then in a short time frame, that will all be erased," Pruitt said.
Not every Republican at Earth Day Texas was enamored with Pruitt's approach on the environment. Andrew Sabin, chairman of Sabin Metal Corp., is both a Trump supporter and an environmentalist. Speaking to reporters Saturday, Sabin called Pruitt "the worst EPA person known to man." Sabin said climate change should be framed as a matter of public health in terms of asthma, pediatric care and lifespans.
"All of these fixes for health are the same as you have for climate change," Sabin said. "Some of the regulations he (Trump) is cutting are affecting public health."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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