Trump’s EPA quietly revamps rules for air pollution

The Trump administration has quietly reshaped enforcement of air pollution standards in recent months through a series of regulatory memos.

The memos are fulfilling the top wishes of industry, which has long called for changes to how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the nation’s factories, plants and other facilities. The EPA is now allowing certain facilities to be subject to less-stringent regulations and is letting companies use friendlier math in calculating their expected emissions.

Environmentalists and public health advocates say the memos could greatly increase levels of air pollutants like mercury, benzene and nitrogen oxides. They accuse the EPA of avoiding the transparency and public input requirements that regulatory changes usually go through.

“All of these, individually and taken together, will result in more air pollution and less enforcement of the Clean Air Act,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

“These were radical departures of current law when they were proposed a decade ago and they’re just as radical today,” he said, referring to the Bush-era efforts, some of which were unsuccessful, to make changes to EPA air programs.

But for the EPA and its supporters, the memos simply bring the agency back to what the relevant laws and regulations are meant to be.

“They address specific concerns that people have had for years, and just make it much simpler for people to comply — especially for existing [facilities] — to make sure they can maintain their plants and replace worn-out components and those types of things, without the threat of enforcement litigation,” said Jeff Holmstead, a former head of the EPA’s air pollution office under the George W. Bush administration who now represents regulated companies at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell.

Bill Wehrum, head of the air office under EPA chief Scott Pruitt, wrote two of the three EPA memos. He recused himself from the third memo, which Pruitt wrote.

The first memo, issued in December, states that the EPA will no longer “second guess” companies’ calculations of their expected pollution output after certain big projects under what is known as New Source Review. Under that program, the EPA reviews the changes made to a facility to decide whether they need to go through the same process as if the facility were newly built.

The December memo effectively means the EPA will usually not take action against a company for its calculations if they turn out to be wrong.

The second memo, issued in January, repeals a Clinton-era policy known as “once in, always in.” Under the previous policy, facilities could never be considered “minor” sources of hazardous pollution if they were already considered “major” sources, and subject to much stricter rules.

Now, facilities can be regulated as “minor” if their emissions drop enough.

The third memo allows companies to use a procedure known as “project netting” when applying for permits for major projects under the New Source Review program. That means companies can use a more industry-friendly emissions calculation when they argue that a particular project would reduce emissions.

President Trump added to the memos last week, signing one himself that formally asks the EPA to use more industry-friendly practices in enforcing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program, a key Clean Air Act program for air quality nationwide.

John Walke, director for clean air at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA is working to implement the policies the Bush administration failed to finish.

“I think Mr. Wehrum has decided this is likely a one-term administration and he’s going to devote his full resources to rolling back clean air, climate and public health protections in the time available to him,” Walke said.

“The most expedient and hasty way to accomplish those rollbacks is through the regular guidance documents that we have seen so far from EPA,” he said. “Rulemakings take time, they require public notice and input and hearings, and Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Pruitt plainly have no patience for those tedious fodders.”

Walke said that, taken together, the memos could allow polluting facilities to greatly increase their emissions.

The EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The focus among the memos for environmental and health advocates is the one repealing the “once in, always in” policy, and letting “major” pollution sources reduce their emissions and be regulated as “minor” ones.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the EPA to stop the policy change, arguing that it should have gone through the full regulatory process, including analysis of its environmental impact and an opportunity for public comment. Democratic states joined in with their own lawsuit.

“Instead of prioritizing the health of hard-working Americans, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to let major polluters off the hook. That is unconscionable, and it is illegal,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D).

“If the ‘Once In, Always In’ policy is rescinded, children in California and around the country — particularly those who must live near the polluting plant or factory — may grow up in an environment with tons of additional hazardous pollutants in the air they breathe. California will not allow that to happen,” Becerra said.

Two environmental groups opposed to the EPA’s move have put out recent analyses of the change, focused on specific areas of the country.

The Environmental Integrity Project looked at 12 industrial plants in the Midwest and concluded they could increase their pollution to 540,000 pounds annually, a fourfold growth.

The Environmental Defense Fund looked at the Houston area, and said that 18 facilities there could increase their emissions to 900,000 pounds a year, two and a half times current levels.

Holmstead said opponents of the Trump administration’s policy are unlikely to prevail. The Supreme Court ruled in the 2015 Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association case that federal agencies can repeal policy memos with other policy memos and don’t have to go through the full regulatory process to do so.

“I think the environmental groups are going to have a real uphill battle trying to get through court that this is somehow improper,” he said. “That really does fly in the face of the Perez decision.”

As for the increase in emissions, Holmstead said environmentalists are wrong. In many cases, the new policies will allow facilities to carry out projects that reduce emissions, or simply operate under a lower paperwork burden.

“They have yet to come up with any real-world examples of how that might happen,” Holmstead said of the scenarios in which pollution might increase. “These reforms are not going to lead to pollution increases.

“I don’t think that there will be a meaningful impact one way or another.”

[The Hill]

Former staffer: EPA fired him for refusing to OK first-class flight

A former top EPA staffer has told Democratic lawmakers that the agency fired him after he refused to retroactively approve the first-class travel of one of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s closest aides, according to letters made public Thursday.

The dismissed political appointee, Kevin Chmielewski, also alleged that Pruitt flouted price limits on hotel stays and office decor, put an aide to work house-hunting for him, arranged taxpayer-funded trips to his native Oklahoma and other destinations just because he wanted to travel there and lied last week when he denied knowing about backdoor raises the agency had granted to two of his top aides, the lawmakers said Thursday in a letter to the agency.

In addition, Chmielewski detailed allegations of lavish spending on Pruitt’s personal security and a possible conflict of interest involving his top bodyguard, as well a $100,000-per-month private jet rental that he says EPA looked into at Pruitt’s direction. He also said, as POLITICO reported last week, that Pruitt was frequently late in paying the $50-a-night rent on his lobbyist-owned Capitol Hill condo last year.

The lawmakers, including Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), separately wrote to President Donald Trump and urged him to rethink his public support for the embattled EPA chief.

“… [I]t appears you may not have received all the facts surrounding Administrator Pruitt’s spending, security arrangements, travel, living arrangements, and personnel actions, among other things,” they wrote.

Carper and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) separately asked EPA’s inspector general on Thursday to look into Pruitt’s alleged use of four different email accounts at EPA, and whether federal record-keeping laws were followed.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to specifically dispute the allegations from Chmielewski outlined in the letter, saying the agency would respond to the lawmakers “through the proper channel.” When Chmielewski’s dismissal was first reported last week, Wilcox called him one of “a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned.”

Chmielewski, a former Trump campaign staffer, was EPA’s deputy chief of staff for operations and handled many of Pruitt’s travel and logistics coordination. He has emerged as the best-known internal agency critic of Pruitt’s lavish spending and other practices, which have led lawmakers of both parties — and key White House aides — to push for the administrator’s firing.

Among his specific charges, Chmielewski told the lawmakers this week that Pruitt had requested that his aide Samantha Dravis, the head of EPA’s Office of Policy, join him in first class on a return flight from Morocco in December, where Pruitt had gone to promote U.S. natural gas.

Chmielewski told the lawmakers he refused to sign paperwork justifying Dravis’ first-class travel “because it violated federal travel regulations,” the Democrats wrote. He said another EPA staffer eventually signed off on the travel retroactively.

Chmielewski said his refusal to bless Dravis’ upgraded travel “appears to him to have been the final straw that caused you to remove him,” the lawmakers wrote to Pruitt. Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, subsequently informed Chmielewski that Pruitt “wished to fire or reassign him,” they wrote.

Dravis disputed Chmielewski’s allegations, telling POLITICO that she never spoke with him about the upgrade approval, that she did not request the upgrade and that it was not approved retroactively. Dravis said she flew coach for three of the four legs of the trip, and was upgraded to business class for one of them in keeping with federal regulations about travel exceeding 14 hours.

Democrats and environmental groups have questioned the entire purpose of the Morocco trip, noting that EPA’s mission doesn’t include promoting U.S. natural gas exports. Energy Secretary Rick Perry declined to weigh in on that issue at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday, saying it would be “a little inappropriate for me to be making a public or private observation” about whether Pruitt’s trip was justified.

Chmielewski also disputed Pruitt’s statement last week to Fox News that he did not know about raises that two of his aides, who had accompanied him to EPA from Oklahoma, received despite the White House’s disapproval. Pruitt told Fox that the raises were entirely carried out by unidentified staffers, and that he was correcting the matter after learning of it.

But Chmielewski said the raises were “100% Pruitt himself,” according to a quote included in the Democrats’ letter.

Chmielewski told the lawmakers that his dismissal came in February when the head of Pruitt’s security detail, Nino Perrotta, asked him to give up his government credentials when he returned to the agency after an unrelated overseas trip with Vice President Mike Pence.

According to the letter, Jackson told Chmielewski that Pruitt wanted him removed and one of the Oklahoma aides, Millan Hupp, promoted to his job and pay scale. Chmielewski said the White House would not approve of that arrangement, but that he later was removed and Hupp received the promotion and pay raise via special hiring authority in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Other allegations made by Chmielewski, according to the letters, include:

— Pruitt’s security detail has purchased bulletproof vests, weapons and biometric locks and new SUVs to transport Pruitt, as opposed to getting vehicles via the General Services Administration. Chmielewski also alleges EPA has awarded security contracts to at least one person who works at the private security firm run by Perrotta.

— Pruitt had Hupp search for housing during work hours.

— Pruitt spent more than the $5,000 legal limit to redecorate his office.

— EPA staff, at Pruitt’s direction, considered a $100,000-per month private jet rental for the administrator. Chmielewski “claimed he successfully prevented this from occurring, as it would have been far in excess of the total travel budget of the office,” the Democrats wrote.

— Pruitt allegedly sought to travel to certain destinations and would ask EPA staff to find official business there to justify the taxpayer-funded trips. Chmielewski also says Pruitt told staff to find official reasons for him to be in or near Oklahoma to spend long weekends at home there.

— Pruitt “frequently” stayed in pricey hotels that exceeded allowable per diem spending, and that while Pruitt was reimbursed even when costs went over a 300 percent cap for exceptional circumstances, his bodyguards sometimes were not.

— Pruitt declined to plan to stay at hotels recommended by U.S. embassies during two planned international trips, choosing instead “more expensive hotels with fewer standard security resources.”

“The new information provided by Mr. Chmielewski, if accurate, leaves us certain that your leadership at EPA has been fraught with numerous and repeated unethical and potentially illegal actions on a wide range of consequential matters that you and some members of your staff directed,” the lawmakers wrote to Pruitt in asking for more documents.

Besides Carper and Whitehouse, the letters were signed by Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.).

[Politico]

EPA officials demoted, removed after voicing complaints about Scott Pruitt

At least five officials at the Environmental Protection Agency were demoted, removed, reassigned, put on leave or asked for new jobs after voicing concerns about embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the New York Times reported Thursday.

Pruitt is in hot water after dominating the news cycle this week with reports that he lived in a condo belonging to the wife of a lobbyist, and that two of his top aides received hefty raises. Those stories follow others from earlier this year about Pruitt’s expensive travel. CBS News’ Julianna Goldman also reported Thursday that the agent in charge of Pruitt’s security detail was reassigned shortly after objecting to Pruitt’s desire to use sirens and lights when there was traffic, and he was late to a business meeting.

The New York Times reported that some EPA officials objected to office furniture spending, first-class travel, and additional security coverage — including a 20-person protective detail. One of the officials, political appointee Kevin Chmielewski, was placed on administrative leave without pay, the Times reported, citing two people familiar with the situation. Chmielewski, the Times reported, had voiced some of his concerns about Pruitt to the White House’s presidential personnel office.

Two other officials, career officials Reginald Allen and Eric Weese, were placed in jobs where they had less authority in spending decisions and interaction with the administrator when they expressed their concerns, the Times reported. And another career official, John Reeder, took a position with American University after the EPA told him to take a new job, according to the Times.

A spokesman for the EPA disputed the Times’ version of events.

“This is a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned,” said EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox.

Wilcox also responded to a New York Times story claiming Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, is considering leaving.

“EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, is committed to advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship and continues to do so under Administrator Pruitt’s leadership,” Wilcox said.

Stories about Pruitt have made headlines since last week, when ABC News first reported Pruitt last year lived in a condo belonging to the wife of a Washington lobbyist. As CBS News has reported, the condo cost Pruitt $50 a night, and he only paid for nights when he was in town. Pruitt has insisted the arrangement was signed off on by an ethics official. In an interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry Thursday night, Pruitt also addressed a report from The Atlantic that two staff members received hefty salary increases. Pruitt blamed whoever made that decision to give the raises, which he said he knew nothing about at the time, and said he had fixed the problem.

“I’m fixing the problem,” Pruitt told Henry.

An EPA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Trump, at least publicly, is standing by Pruitt. The White House is reviewing Pruitt’s actions.

On Air Force One heading from West Virginia to Washington, D.C., Thursday, Mr. Trump called Pruitt a “good man.”

“I have to look at them,” Mr. Trump said of the claims against Pruitt. “…I’ll make that determination. But he’s a good man, he’s done a terrific job. But I’ll take a look at it.”

[CBS News]

EPA: ‘Zero Records’ of Any Death Threats Against Scott Pruitt, Despite Trump Tweet

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) apparently has no evidence of any death threats made against agency head Scott Pruitt, despite allegations to the contrary, including a recent tweet from President Donald Trump.

According to numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by various media outlets and reporters, the conservation-themed agency has “zero records” responsive to inquiries regarding any and all death threats made against the embattled agency director.

BuzzFeed News‘ senior investigative Reporter Jason Leopold noted this records-related discrepancy in a tweet sent late Saturday afternoon. He wrote:

I had filed a #FOIA with EPA for any records of death threats made against Scott Pruitt. EPA said it had zero records.

Leopold then suggested that maybe the agency was just lying to him about those threats. In a later tweet, addressing possible criticism of his methods, Leopold clarified that those FOIA requests were lodged with both the EPA’s headquarters and Inspector General’s office.

The Washington Post and Associated Press previously conducted similar investigations into these alleged death threats against Pruitt, but both news agencies came up empty-handed as well.

Officials speaking on behalf of Pruitt have frequently cited to alleged death threats against him when pressed to account for the unprecedentedly expensive–and oftentimes lavish–spending requests issued by Pruitt and his inner circle. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the following in comments to Fox News on Sunday:

According to EPA’s Assistant Inspector General, Scott Pruitt has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him and his family. Americans should all agree that members of the president’s Cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats.

That may not be entirely accurate.

Patrick Sullivan is the EPA’s current assistant inspector general. Sullivan is the agency official tasked with investigating any threats made against EPA personnel. A September 14, 2017 E&E News story by reporter Kevin Bogardus noted that Sullivan had opened at least four investigations into alleged threats against Pruitt. None of those alleged threats, however, were characterized as “death threats” by either Sullivan or Bogardus in the story, which was itself based on various FOIA-obtained documents provided by the EPA.

In comments to the energy and environmental policy-focused publication, Sullivan said, “I can tell you we have more than three investigations. That’s for sure.” When pressed to explain the outcome of one of those investigations, Sullivan said, “It was not a direct threat. It was an implied threat that contained obscene language.”

“The U.S. attorney’s office determined that there was no probable cause to meet the statute and there was no crime committed, so they declined,” he added.

The author of that “implied threat” sent Pruitt a postcard and later apologized to EPA agents for doing so. Another postcard addressed to Pruitt called the agency director an “evil” and “ignorant fuck,” but was also determined not to contain any sort of legally cognizable threat and was ultimately dismissed by Sullivan and his investigative team.

In a New York Times report from last Thursday by reporters Eric Lipton, Kenneth P. Vogel and Lisa Friedman, Wilcox allegedly said, “They run the variety of direct death threats — ‘I’m going to put a bullet in your brain’ — to implied threats — ‘If you don’t classify this particular chemical in this particular way, I’m going to hurt you.”

It is presently unclear exactly which threats Wilcox is referencing in the above-quoted language–but some of those alleged threats bear similarities to previous threats noted by Sullivan in the E&E story: except those direct threats were made against Obama era EPA chief Gina McCarthy.

An Associated Press story released mid-morning Monday revealed that EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins has launched at least five separate probes into Pruitt’s controversial conduct.

[Law and Crime]

Scott Pruitt Bypassed the White House to Give Big Raises to Favorite Aides

In early March, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt approached the White House with a request: He wanted substantial pay raises for two of his closest aides.

The aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, were part of the small group of staffers who had traveled with Pruitt to Washington from Oklahoma, where he had served as attorney general. Greenwalt, a 30-year-old who had worked as Pruitt’s general counsel in Oklahoma, was now his senior counsel at the EPA. Hupp, 26, was working on his political team before she moved to D.C. to become the agency’s scheduling director.

Pruitt asked that Greenwalt’s salary be raised from $107,435 to $164,200; Hupp’s, from $86,460 to $114,590. Because both women were political appointees, he needed the White House to sign-off on their new pay.

According to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, staffers from the Presidential Personnel Office dismissed Pruitt’s application. The White House, the source said, declined to approve the raises.

So Pruitt found another way.

A provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act allows the EPA administrator to hire up to 30 people into the agency, without White House or congressional approval. The provision, meant to help expedite the hiring of experts and allow for more flexible staffing, became law in 1996. In past administrations, it has been used to hire specialists into custom-made roles in especially stressed offices, according to Bob Perciasepe, a former acting EPA administrator.

After the White House rejected their request, Pruitt’s team studied the particulars of the Safe Drinking Water provision, according to the source with direct knowledge of these events. By reappointing Greenwalt and Hupp under this authority, they learned, Pruitt could exercise total control over their contracts and grant the raises on his own.

Pruitt ordered it done. Though Hupp and Greenwalt’s duties did not change, the agency began processing them for raises of $28,130 and $56,765, respectively, compared with their 2017 salaries. Less than two weeks after Pruitt had approached the White House, according to time-stamped Human Resources documents shared with The Atlantic, the paperwork was finished.

Word of the raises quickly began to circulate through the agency. The episode infuriated some staffers; to some political aides, it was evidence of Pruitt’s disregard for the White House’s warnings to cabinet officials that they avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It also underscored the administrator’s tendency to play favorites among his staff, according to two sources with direct knowledge of agency dynamics. Hupp, in particular, is making more than her Obama-era predecessor, a five-year veteran of the agency who did not break six figures until the final year of the administration, according to public records. (While Greenwalt has no obvious peer in the Obama administration, the EPA’s general counsel had an annual salary of $155,500 in 2016.)

Said one EPA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press: “This whole thing has completely gutted any morale I had left to put up with this place.”

“The Safe Drinking Water Act provides the EPA with broad authority to appoint scientific, engineering, professional, legal, and administrative positions within EPA without regard to the civil service laws. This is clear authority that has been relied on by previous administrations,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement. “The Administrator was not aware that these personnel actions had not been submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office. So, the Administrator has directed that they be submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office for review.”

The White House did not return requests for comment.

[The Atlantic]

Oil lobbyist linked to EPA secretary Scott Pruitt’s cheap DC condo rental had pipeline project approved

After his wife rented a Washington, D.C. condo to Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt for $50 a night, a Canadian oil lobbyist had his pipeline project approved by the department.

The New York Times reported Monday that the firm led by J. Stephen Hart, whose wife Vicki rented the condo to Pruitt, successfully lobbied the EPA to approve the Alberta Clipper pipeline in March 2017. The approval came despite Enbridge Inc. — a Calgary-based company that Hart’s firm Williams & Jensen lobbied for — being fined $61 million by the agency towards the end of Barack Obama’s presidency.

A spokesperson for Williams & Jensen told the Times that they did not interfere with the EPA or Pruitt before or after the administrator’s stay in the Hart condo. The company also said “it had not worked on similar regulatory issues for Enbridge in the past year, even though it was registered at the time as lobbying for the company on ‘issues affecting pipelines and construction of new pipelines,’” the report noted.

Shortly after the Times broke the story about the Alberta Clipper pipeline, Politico reported that White House chief of staff John Kelly has considered firing Pruitt — once considered to be a replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions — over this latest scandal.

The Daily Beast also reported Monday night that the owners of the townhome Pruitt rented hosted GOP fundraisers when he was living there.

[Raw Story]

Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt caught living in prime DC condo owned by top energy lobbyist’s wife

President Donald Trump’s environmental chief has been living in a townhouse co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt occupies the home a short distance from the U.S. Capitol, but neither the agency or lobbyist J. Steven Hart would say how much the Trump administration official has been paying to live in the prime location, reported ABC News.

The cost of the rental agreement will be a key question in determining whether the property is an improper gift, according to ethics experts.

Hart confirmed to ABC News that Pruitt lived in the condo, which is owned through a limited liability company that links to address owned by the lobbyist and his wife Vicki Hart — who is a lobbyist specializing in health care.

The Harts were described in 2010 by the newspaper Roll Call as a “lobbyist power couple.”

Steven Hart, chairman and CEO of Williams and Jensen, previously served in the Reagan Justice Department and is a top Republican fundraiser, and his firm reported more than $16 million in federal lobbying income last year.

“Among his many clients are the NRA and Cheniere Energy Inc., which reported paying Hart’s firm $80,000 a year,” ABC News reported.

[Raw Story]

EPA appointee gets approval to consult for outside clients

A key aide to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been granted permission to make extra money moonlighting for private clients whose identities are being kept secret.

A letter approving outside employment contracts for John Konkus — signed by an EPA ethics lawyer in August — was released Monday by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The ethics official noted that Konkus’ outside contracts presented a “financial conflict of interest” and barred him from participating in matters at EPA that would have a “direct and predictable” financial benefit for his clients.

Pruitt named Konkus, a Republican political consultant, to serve as the EPA’s deputy associate administrator for public affairs. His duties have included signing off on hundreds of millions in federal grants.

The letter gave Konkus approval to work for at least two clients. Those names were blacked out by the agency before a copy was provided to Congress, citing a privacy exemption more typically used to protect personnel records and medical files. The letter said Konkus was also expected to take on additional private clients, advising them about “strategy, mail and media production.”

Konkus didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday. His boss said he followed proper procedure.

Liz Bowman, EPA’s associate administrator for public affairs, said, “As the letter states, EPA career ethics approvals have reviewed and approved these opportunities.”

Federal regulations would still limit Konkus from receiving more than $27,765 from outside clients in 2017, according to the letter. His taxpayer-funded salary for his full-time position at the EPA is about $145,000 annually.

Prior to joining the Trump administration, Konkus worked as an executive vice president for Jamestown Associates, a political consulting firm. According to the firm’s website last year, Konkus “worked on the ground tirelessly to help President Trump win Florida.”

Konkus also served two years as chief of staff to former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. A Republican, Carroll was forced to resign in 2013 over consulting work she had previously done for a scam veteran’s charity that state and federal prosecutors said laundered more than $300 million in proceeds from illegal gambling parlors.

Since Konkus arrived in Washington in early 2017, his responsibilities have included reviewing and approving all EPA grants prior to being awarded to help ensure they “adhere to the policies and principles of the current administration,” according to his online resume.

The Washington Post reported in September that Konkus had been scrutinizing grant applications for mentions of climate change, which he reportedly referred to as “the double C-word.”

That’s in line with statements by Pruitt, who as the administration’s top environmental official has embraced a pro-fossil-fuel agenda while questioning climate science showing that global warming is primarily caused by man-made carbon emissions.

House Democrats decried what they called the politicization of the EPA’s grants-making process in a letter sent to Pruitt on Monday.

“A political appointee cutting millions of dollars in funding to EPA grant recipients on what appears to be a politically motivated basis, while at the same time being authorized to serve as a paid media consultant to unnamed outside clients, raises serious concerns of potential conflicts of interest,” said the letter. Signatories included Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Democrats also demanded a list of all other EPA political appointees receiving outside compensation, as well as unredacted copies of the letters approving the outside work.

The AP filed a public records request with EPA in August under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking copies of all ethics letters, agreements or waivers for Pruitt’s team. So far, the agency has yet to release a single document.

Along with the information about Konkus’ side jobs, the House Democrats also got a copy of letter approving similar outside employment for Patrick Davis, another Trump political appointee working as a senior adviser for public engagement in the EPA’s regional office in Denver.

Like Konkus, Davis is a Republican political consultant who led Trump’s presidential campaign in Colorado. According to a 2015 report by ProPublica, Davis was accused two years earlier of defrauding a conservative super PAC called Vote2ReduceDebt, which was funded by an elderly oil tycoon. The group collapsed after Davis allegedly paid nearly $3 million of the PAC’s funds to organizations run by him or his close associates, according to the news report.

Davis told the AP on Monday that the dispute involving Vote2Reduce Debt “was mitigated to a mutually agreed-upon, private, amicable conclusion.”

An EPA ethics lawyer in February 2017 approved of Davis receiving outside compensation for work as sales director for a company called Telephone Town Hall Meeting, which provides services such as robocalls to political campaigns and advocacy groups. The agency redacted how much Davis is to be paid for the agreement, but his outside compensation would also be capped at less than $28,000.

Bowman said Davis’ work for Telephone Town Hall Meeting is conducted on his own time and does not intersect with work for EPA.

Environmentalists said Monday that the agency’s lack of transparency about the private payments to EPA staff on the public’s payroll raises concerns about whom they are really working for.

“The American people already know that Scott Pruitt is working for corporate polluters and not for them, but the revelation that his staff is moonlighting for private clients while working at the EPA full-time brings suspicions of pay-to-play to a whole new level,” said Melinda Pierce, the legislative director of the Sierra Club. “And if Konkus is not working for polluters directly, the public is forced to ask whether he is running a partisan political operation from within the agency instead.”

[Associated Press]

Trump to consider elephant trophy imports on ‘case-by-case’ basis

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced last week that it will now consider all permits for importing elephant trophies from African nations on a “case-by-case basis,” breaking from President Trump’s earlier promises to maintain an Obama-era ban on the practice.

In a formal memorandum issued on Thursday, FWS said it will withdraw its 2017 Endangered Species Act (ESA) findings for trophies of African elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia, “effective immediately.”

The memo said “the findings are no longer effective for making individual permit determinations for imports of sport-hunted African elephant trophies.”

In its place, FWS will instead “grant or deny permits to import a sport-hunted trophy on a case-by-case basis.”

FWS said it will still consider the information included in the ESA findings, as well as science-based risk assessments of the species’ vulnerability, when evaluating each permit request.

The service also announced it is withdrawing a number of previous ESA findings, which date back to 1995, related to trophies of African elephants, bontebok and lions from multiple African countries.

The decision to withdraw the FWS findings followed a D.C. Circuit Court decision in December that found fault with the initial Obama-era rule, which banned importing elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe.

“In response to a recent D.C. Circuit Court’s opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is revising its procedure for assessing applications to import certain hunted species. We are withdrawing our countrywide enhancement findings for a range of species across several countries,” a spokesperson for FWS said in a statement. “In their place, the Service intends to make findings for trophy imports on an application-by-application basis.”

A federal appeals court ruled at the end of last year that the Obama administration did not follow the right procedures when it drafted its ban on the imports. The court also said the FWS should have gone through the extensive process of proposing a regulation, inviting public comment and making the regulation final when it made determinations in 2014 and 2015 that elephant trophies cannot be brought into the country.

The agency used the same procedures as the Obama administration for its ESA determination in 2017 that led to reopening African elephant imports to the U.S. in November.

At the time, a FWS spokesperson said the reversal “will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.”

Following the fall announcement to overturn the ban, the Trump administration faced immense backlash, which played a role in leading the president to denounce elephant hunting and promise to re-establish the ban.

Trump in February called the administration’s initial decision to overturn the Obama-era ban “terrible.”

In an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan, Trump said he had decided to officially turn the order around.

“I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country] and people can talk all they want about preservation and all of the things that they’re saying where money goes towards well, money was going in that case, going to a government which was probably taking the money, OK?” Trump said.

Despite the president’s tweets and interviews, however, FWS and the Interior Department remained tight-lipped as to the status of the ban. Numerous requests for information to FWS from The Hill over several months were referred to Interior and left unanswered.

“The president has been very clear in the direction that his administration will go,” the FWS spokesperson said of the new memorandum. “Unfortunately, since aspects of the import permitting program for trophies are the focus of ongoing litigation, the Department is unable to comment about specific next steps at this time.”

Nine days before FWS added the reversal to the Federal Register, the Interior Department announced that it was establishing an International Wildlife Conservation Council to “advise the Secretary of the Interior on the benefits that international recreational hunting has on foreign wildlife and habitat conservation.”

Interior Department Spokeswoman Heather Swift said Tuesday that Zinke and the President’s positions remain unchanged.

“The recent FWS posting on the website does not break any promises. In response to a recent D.C. Circuit Court opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is revising its procedure for assessing applications to import certain hunted species,” she said.

The council will hold its first meeting next week on March 16.

[The Hill]

Trump nominates Dow Chemicals lawyer to oversee EPA toxic waste program

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday nominated a Dow Chemicals lawyer to head-up an Environmental Protection Agency unit that oversees hazardous waste disposal and chemical spills from toxic “Superfund” sites.

Trump named Peter Wright as assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM). Wright served as Dow’s managing counsel for environmental health and safety and provided the company legal support for Superfund and other remediation sites, according to the EPA.

“He has the expertise and experience necessary to implement our ambitious goals for cleaning up the nation’s contaminated lands quickly and thoroughly,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a press release.

Pruitt has said that cleaning up Superfund sites would be a priority for the agency.

As head of OLEM, Wright would oversee the development of guidelines for the land disposal of hazardous waste and underground storage tanks and respond to abandoned and active hazardous waste sites, as well as accidental chemical releases through the Superfund program.

Dow Chemicals facilities are involved in dozens of Superfund projects.

Dow had accrued $219 million in accrued obligations for remediating Superfund sites, according to the company’s fourth quarter 2017 10-K filing.

Overall, Dow had accrued $1.3 billion in “probable environmental remediation and restoration costs,” according to the 10-K.

The EPA’s relationship with Dow had been under scrutiny after Pruitt last year announced the agency would decline to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a chemical that EPA scientists and the American Academy of Pediatrics wanted to ban because of the risk it said it posed to children and farm workers.

[Reuters]

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