Under Scott Pruitt, the interests of industry have taken precedence over the recommendations of the EPA's own experts, says former agency insider Betsy Southerland.

To Sway Scott Pruitt, EPA Experts Must “Hope Against Hope,” Says Former Insider

October 11, 2017
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

(This story has been updated.)

After months of waiting, Betsy Southerland finally got her chance in July to make her case to Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Southerland, then the director of science and technology in the agency’s water office, had spent years developing regulation to limit toxic waste from coal-fired power plants. Now, Pruitt was moving towards rolling back a rule that pro-industry groups had complained was too expensive and would cost jobs.

During the meeting, Southerland and her staff presented Pruitt with options for a more limited repeal. But she left feeling unsure about whether he would side with industry or the agency’s own experts. Pruitt was impassive and he asked only clarifying questions, she recalled, making it impossible to read where he stood.

“It’s just a mystery as to how you can persuade him to not follow exactly what industry asks him to do and instead be more accommodating to the facts of the case,” said Southerland, who ended her 30-year career at the EPA shortly after the meeting with an exit letter that criticized the agency for moving to repeal regulations backed by years of scientific study.

In an interview with FRONTLINE for the new documentary War on the EPA, Southerland discussed the growing role of industry interests inside the agency. She said that outside influence has taken precedence over the recommendations of the agency’s own experts.

Southerland described an atmosphere in which political appointees don’t communicate with career staff about where decisions are heading or how they are being made, leaving them “flying blind” in many cases when trying to respond to actions that Pruitt might take as administrator.

“The atmosphere of EPA is really tense,” said Southerland. “What everyone is trying desperately to do is to hope against hope that their facts will change Scott Pruitt’s mind … That they’ll be special and they’ll be able to convince the administrator not to go with whatever the industry people have asked him to do and to give some deference to the science and engineering behind previous regulations.”

In a statement, an EPA spokesman said that the agency has a great working relationship with career employees. It said Southerland was expressing “faux outrage” and that she retired for personal reasons with a “six figure taxpayer funded pension.” (Southerland disputed that claim, saying she receives about $60,000 a year.)

Since Pruitt took office in February, the EPA has moved to delay or roll back more than two dozen rules and regulations. On Tuesday, the agency took one of its biggest steps yet, issuing a proposal to roll back the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s signature domestic climate change policy. The plan aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels, but critics like Pruitt said that Obama exceeded his legal authority in crafting the plan.

“We are committed to righting the wrongs of the Obama administration by cleaning the regulatory slate,” Pruitt said in a statement issued Tuesday announcing the agency’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

The Toxic Waste Rule

Earlier this spring, the Utility Water Act Group, which is a coalition of energy companies, and the U.S. Small Business Administration each submitted petitions requesting the reconsideration of the toxic waste rule that Southerland had spearheaded. The groups argued that the rule was inconsistent with President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda.

Less than a month later, the EPA announced that it would reconsider the rule, referring to criticism that it was “not economically or technically feasible.”

“It is just a poster child of how years and years of work on rules are gone,” said Southerland, who had asked her supervisor for a meeting with Pruitt when the petitions first came in. She said she never heard back. “In just that day, there’s a decision that is not discussed with staff at all.”

Southerland would eventually secure a meeting with Pruitt in July, but ahead of that, she and her team briefed the agency’s new political appointees on the rule. They explained that less than 15 percent of coal-fired power plants would incur costs and that many companies had either already complied with the limits set by the regulation or were moving quickly to transform their handling of toxic liquid waste. But, she said they received little feedback.

Kyla Bennett, a former EPA employee and the New England director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an organization representing government employees in environmental fields, said that in previous administrations, political appointees drafting regulation would tap career staff for their expertise.

Now, she said, there’s much less communication.

“They are being entirely cut out of decision-making and to the point that when permits are overturned or rules are being stayed or repealed, they are not asked for any input whatsoever,” said Bennett. “People are cut out of the work they have been doing for 10 years.”

Southerland compared current efforts to reconsider the guideline regulating power plant waste with a long and “ambitious rule-making project” under the Obama administration. She said the EPA had decided to regulate toxic-waste disposal knowing that companies were moving to retire coal-fired power plants, which meant the regulation’s economic costs would be smaller.

Southerland said the regulation aimed at preventing environmental accidents like the 2014 coal ash leak at a Duke Energy power plant that coated 70 miles of a riverbank in North Carolina.

In the petition that Southerland reviewed, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s office of advocacy said that the rule’s requirements would likely result in the closure of a significant number of coal-fired utilities.

“While these rule requirements may not adversely affect some utility plants, primarily larger utility plants, that have either planned to retire or already comply with the rule requirements, this provides no relief for mostly smaller units, serving many rural communities, for which the rule poses a severe hardship,” Kevin Bromberg, the assistant chief counsel for environmental policy at SBA’s office of advocacy, said in a statement to FRONTLINE.

In order to propose new regulations, federal agencies must submit them through a public comment period. Close to 470,000 public comments have been submitted in response to an executive order by President Donald Trump in February that directed federal agencies, including the EPA, to suggest regulations to be replaced, repealed or modified.

Southerland said she was handed a list of requests from leaders in the electric power industry to review and that she felt petitions from those groups were given priority. Her office was given a few days to respond to the industry’s requests for repeals of regulations or scientific documents.

“In every case, I can tell you, we responded, ‘No, the rules should not be repealed because there is no flaw in the process by which that rule was promulgated, and there’s no technical error in that rule that would mean it should be repealed,’” she said.

As the petitions were under review, she said EPA staff weren’t given access to Pruitt’s calendar, so it was difficult to know when they could brief him. Instruction from political appointees was also verbal, not written, she said, resulting in “very one-way communication.”

“It just doesn’t look like the staff is being given a fair shake at having some more moderate, appeals done,” she said. “It seems like that the die is cast before we even start these elaborate, extensive briefings to try to show people that the work that’s been done is very justifiable.”

Ultimately, the rule that Southerland had worked on was suspended in September.

FRONTLINE producer Anya Bourg contributed to this story. 

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