Trump’s EPA rolls back Obama-era coal ash regulations

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it is relaxing rules for the disposal of spent coal used to fuel hundreds of power plants nationwide.

But environmental groups say the rollback of coal ash storage regulations established by the Obama administration in 2015 could affect drinking water near dozens of sites.

Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director for land and water, said legal action was being considered. “We are pouring through the rule change see what our next steps might be,” she said

The coal industry petitioned the Trump administration for the roll back, announced by Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former lobbyist for the coal industry.

It’s not like EPA has granted us free pass here,” said James Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Advisory Group, an industry organization that had pushed for the changes. “It just gives us additional time to operate those facilities and better synch them up” with the upcoming wastewater guidelines.

The EPA states that the relaxed rules will save affected utility companies $28 to $31 million a year in regulatory costs.

These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”

The EPA extended the time by 18 months that the industry can use unlined coal ash ponds and groundwater-adjacent sites for dumping. The Obama administration sought to phase out those sites by April 2019.

The unlined ponds are considered by environmentalists to be the worst offenders for polluting groundwater that sometimes is tapped for drinking.

“The Trump administration is turing a blind eye to damage done to our drinking water,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel for environmental group Earthjustice. “This is aimed at saving industry money instead of protecting the public.”

[NBC News]

EPA’s Pruitt Made Young Staffers Pay for His Hotel Stays, Then Refused to Reimburse Them

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, already famously scandal-ridden, made even more ridiculously ethically questionable decisions than were previously known, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

Two top Pruitt aides spoke to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about even more of what the administrator asked staffers to do for his personal gain, including pressuring them to arrange first-class travel for him and to find a six-figure job for his wife – all this against the counsel of many of his allies.

The new information comes after EPA’s chief ethics officer, Kevin Minoli, told the Office of Government Ethics last week that he thought the investigation into Pruitt should be broadened, saying: “additional potential issues regarding Mr. Pruitt have come to my attention through sources within the EPA and media reports,” the Washington Post reports.

Amazingly, a current and former EPA official also revealed that Pruitt would ask his assistants to put hotel reservations on their own personal credit cards – not his – on a routine basis.

According to former deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski, during the presidential transition one staffer charged approximately $600 to her credit card for a hotel booking for Pruitt’s family. The staffer later approached Pruitt’s chief of staff to explain that the period for transition reimbursements had expired and that Pruitt had not covered the bill.

As the Hill first reported, Pruitt’s chief of staff ended up giving her $600 in cash – out of his own pocket.

“She literally went to Ryan and said, ‘Look, Pruitt needs to pay me back for this. It was $600 bucks.’ And Ryan took six $100 dollar bills out of his pocket,” Chmielewski told the Hill last month.

Scotty, for the love of God, man. There’s only so long the entirety of civilization can look down upon you. I hear in Oklahoma, the wind comes right behind the rain – neither of which may be around for too much longer if you stick around the Capitol.

[Mediaite]

Utah oil drillers won pollution break from Pruitt

Utah oil and gas producers tried for years to get the EPA to exempt them from smog rules meant to prevent ailments like asthma.

They finally got their relief after Scott Pruitt took charge of the agency, newly released emails show.

To groups opposed to President Donald Trump’s policies, the records are yet another sign that Pruitt has transformed an agency created to protect the environment into a tool for granting favors to industry. They say that’s troubling even if it falls short of the overt collusion his critics have accused him of amid revelations about his ties to lobbyists who helped him arrange housing and travel.

“The public is being shut out of the decisions that affect the air we all breathe while polluters have Pruitt at their beck and call whenever they ask to throw out a life-saving protection,” said Matt Gravatt, the associate legislative director at the Sierra Club, which obtained the emails in a lawsuit over a public records request.

EPA’s aid for the oil and gas companies in Utah came after an industry lobbyist, Marc Himmelstein, a former American Petroleum Institute executive with longstandingconnectionsto top GOP fundraisers, enlisted help from another like-minded Republican, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has pushed legislation to promote oil and gas development and ease permitting requirements.

Himmelstein coordinated a July 2017 phone call between the Utah lawmakers and Pruitt, offering specific talking points for Bishop to use, according to the records obtained in a lawsuit by the Sierra Club.

EPA was set to declare that the tribal land in the Uinta Basin in Utah was not meeting standards for smog, or ozone pollution. Once that happened, oil and gas producers wouldn’t be able to use a streamlined permitting process and would instead have to seek approval for each of the thousands of wells they aim to drill there.

“We ask the Agency to develop a streamlined permitting solution for future development of the Basin,” Himmelstein’s talking points for Bishop said.

In April, EPA proposed just that.

[Politico]

Whistleblower says Pruitt kept secret calendar to hide meetings with industry reps

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides maintained “secret” calendars in order to prevent controversial meetings or calls with industry representatives getting out publicly, according to a CNN report.

The news outlet reported on Monday that the findings were revealed by a former EPA official who is scheduled to testify before Congress soon.

The report says that EPA staffers consistently met in Pruitt’s office to go through a process in which they would either remove or alter records from the EPA chief’s calendar. Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, reportedly said the reasoning for this was because the meetings could “look bad.”

The scrubbing led to a noticeable difference between Pruitt’s public calendar and what internal EPA schedules and emails show. CNN notes that more than two dozen meetings, events or calls were removed from his public calendar.

Chmielewski, who said he was forced to leave the agency in February because he questioned its spending and management, said some meetings were purposefully omitted from Pruitt’s calendar after they happened. For example, Pruitt’s meeting with Cardinal George Pell, who faces multiple historical charges of sexual offenses, was removed from the calendar.

“We would have meetings what we were going to take off on the official schedule. We had at one point three different schedules. One of them was one that no one else saw except three or four of us,” Chmielewski told CNN. “It was a secret … and they would decide what to nix from the public calendar.”

CNN noted that if the allegations are true, the EPA’s practice of removing or altering public calendars could violate federal law.

[The Hill]

Scott Pruitt Sought ‘Business Opportunity’ With Chick-fil-A While Leading E.P.A.

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, gave a political aide the task of helping him seek a “business opportunity” for his wife with the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A.

Emails released to the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act show that Sydney Hupp, a former scheduler for Mr. Pruitt, contacted Chick-fil-A’s chief executive, Dan T. Cathy, in May 2017 at Mr. Pruitt’s behest to set up a meeting.

After a back-and-forth in which Ms. Hupp initially said the administrator “didn’t mention a specific topic” of discussion, she told the company’s director of regulatory affairs that Mr. Pruitt’s request was of a personal nature. “The Administrator would like to talk about a potential business opportunity with Mr. Cathy. Nothing very pressing, just hoping to connect sometime in the next month or so,” Ms. Hupp wrote.

Mr. Pruitt ultimately spoke by phone with Chick-fil-A representatives.

Mr. Cathy, reached by phone, referred questions to a company spokeswoman, Carrie Kurlander. Ms. Kurlander said she would not comment further. In an email to The Washington Post, which first reported Mr. Pruitt’s effort to seek a business deal with Chick-fil-A, Ms. Kurlander had said the call was about the possibility of Mr. Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, opening a franchise of the fast food chain. Ms. Kurlander told the Post that Mrs. Pruitt never completed the franchisee application.

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the E.P.A., did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, said in a statement that Mr. Pruitt had been engaged in “unethically and illegally seeking personal benefits because of the job Donald Trump has entrusted him with.”

The revelation that Mr. Pruitt asked an E.P.A. employee to help coordinate efforts to seek a personal business opportunity comes amid a wave of investigations into the administrator’s spending and management decisions including his first-class travel and spending on security, as well as his decision last year to accept a $50-a-night lease on a condominium from the wife of a lobbyist with business before his agency. Currently Mr. Pruitt faces 12 federal investigations.

 

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/climate/pruitt-epa-chick-fil-a.html

EPA paid $1,560 for 12 fountain pens, emails show

A close aide to Scott Pruitt last year ordered a set of 12 fountain pens that cost the Environmental Protection Agency $1,560, according to agency documents.

Each $130 silver pen bore the agency’s seal and Administrator Pruitt’s signature, according to the documents, which were obtained by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Yes, please order,” an aide wrote.

The order from the Washington shop Tiny Jewel Box also included a set of journals that cost $1,670.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the pens were similar to purchases made by Pruitt’s predecessors “for the purpose of serving as gifts to the Administrator’s foreign counterparts and dignitaries upon his meeting with them.”

Purchasing records show the EPA under the Obama administration made a $2,952 purchase from the same shop in 2009 for “non-monetary awards for Administrator.”

The purchase stands out not only for the cost but also because it was approved by a close aide who Pruitt described in congressional testimony last month as “longtime friend.”

Pruitt has sought to distance from the agency’s controversial spending, including a $43,000 phone booth in his office. He has recently blamed some purchases on “decisions made by career staff,” as he told the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, this week.

Pruitt’s actions are currently under scrutiny by investigators at the EPA inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and Congress. At least 12 investigations have been opened.

Other emails released by the agency and obtained by the Sierra Club show the same aide working on Pruitt’s apartment search during work hours. In her first year on the job at EPA, she received two raises that boosted her pay by 72%.

The pen purchase was first reported by The Washington Post.

[CNN]

Pruitt bars AP, CNN from EPA summit on contaminants, guards push reporter out of building

The Environmental Protection Agency barred The Associated Press and CNN from a national summit on harmful water contaminants on Tuesday — and guards forcibly shoved a female reporter out of the building.

The EPA blocked the media organizations, along with the environmental-focused E&E News, from attending the meeting in Washington, convened by EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

Guards barred an AP reporter from passing through a security checkpoint inside the building.

When the reporter, Ellen Knickmeyer, asked to speak to an EPA public-affairs person, the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building. She said she was not injured and was later permitted to attend the meeting.

“The Environmental Protection Agency’s selective barring of news organizations, including the AP, from covering today’s meeting is alarming and a direct threat to the public’s right to know about what is happening inside their government,” said AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee.

“It is particularly distressing that any journalist trying to cover an event in the public interest would be forcibly removed,” Buzbee added.

CNN said in a statement that its reporter also was turned away from covering the event “after multiple attempts to attend.”

“We understand the importance of an open and free press and we hope the EPA does, too,” CNN said, according to the AP.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told the barred organizations they were not invited and there was no space for them, but gave no indication of why they specifically were barred.

“This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity, which reporters were aware of prior to the event,” Wilcox told NBC News. “We were able to accommodate 10 reporters, provided a livestream for those we could not accommodate and were unaware of the individual situation that has been reported.”

The reporter threatened “negative coverage” if she couldn’t get in, Wilcox alleged.

Some media that had been permitted to attend said that there appeared to be a handful of open seats for the press in the room despite claims that there was no room left.

A reporter for E&E News tweeted about being shut out by the EPA.

Amid criticism for barring the media outlets, Wilcox announced later that the afternoon session of the meeting would be open to all press.

Following that decision, the AP said, “We are pleased that the EPA has reconsidered its decision and will now allow AP to attend the remainder of today’s meeting. The AP looks forward to informing the public of the important discussions at the water contaminants summit this afternoon.”

Pruitt spoke Tuesday as he opened a hearing on the contaminants, known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl. The chemicals were used in items like nonstick coating and firefighting foam and have contaminated some water systems nationwide. The compounds are linked to developmental defects and other health problems.

Pruitt has faced criticism in recent weeks over emails showing the EPA sought to intervene in a critical study on the contaminants.

Convening Tuesday’s session, Pruitt is pledging to work on establishing a maximum allowable level for the chemicals in drinking water.

Representatives of states, tribes, the chemical industry, environmental groups and others attended the session.

[NBC News]

Scott Pruitt and a crew of EPA aides spent four days in Morocco promoting natural gas

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt returned Wednesday from a trip to Morocco, where he talked with officials about their interest in importing natural gas as well as other areas of “continued cooperation” between the two countries.

The EPA disclosed the trip late Tuesday, issuing a media release that included photos and a statement from Pruitt saying that the visit “allowed us to directly convey our priorities and best practices with Moroccan leaders.”

“We are committed to working closely with countries like Morocco to enhance environmental stewardship around the world,” Pruitt said.

The purpose of the trip sparked questions from environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers and some industry experts, who noted that EPA plays no formal role in overseeing natural gas exports. Such activities are overseen primarily by the Energy Department and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Pruitt took along seven aides and an undisclosed number of staff from his protective detail. The group included four political aides, including Samantha Dravis, associate administrator of the Office of Policy, and senior advisers Sarah Greenwalt and Lincoln Ferguson, as well as one career official, Jane Nishida, principal deputy assistant administrator of the Office of International and Tribal Affairs. Pruitt’s head of security determines how many advance staffers travel on any given trip, EPA officials said, and in this instance it was two.

At the request of Senate Democrats, the EPA inspector general is looking into Pruitt’s use of military and private flights, as well as his frequent visits to his home state of Oklahoma during his first few months on the job.

“It seems strange that Administrator Pruitt would prioritize a trip to Morocco to discuss natural gas exports while there is no shortage of more pressing issues here in the U.S. that actually fall within the jurisdiction of the agency he leads,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “I presume Mr. Pruitt is aware his agency’s inspector general is conducting an investigation into his questionable travel, which makes his decision to take this trip an odd choice at best.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement that Pruitt “acts like he is a globe-trotting salesman for the fossil fuel industry who can make taxpayers foot the bill.”

Pruitt traveled in business class for three flights, according to an individual who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal agency matter, and in economy class for two flights. Asked about the travel arrangements, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox replied in an email, “Due to concerns from our security team, Administrator Pruitt was granted a waiver by EPA’s Chief Financial Officer to fly business-class.”

Wilcox said he could not provide the trip’s total cost because the travelers’ arrangements were booked through their respective departments.

Pruitt met with three top Moroccan officials, according to the agency statement, including the minister of energy, mines and sustainable development; the minister of justice and liberties; and the secretary of state to the minister of foreign affairs. Wilcox said Pruitt “discussed our bilateral free trade agreement, solid waste response, disaster relief and communications with top Moroccan officials.”

His visit came shortly after the EPA held a workshop in Rabat about solid waste management, public participation and crisis communication.

Morocco, the only African country with which the United States has a free-trade agreement, is a signatory to the 2015 Paris climate agreement and has collaborated in the past with U.S. officials on its push to expand domestic solar energy production. During the trip, Moroccan officials took Pruitt on a tour of the IRESEN Green Energy Park, which the EPA said showed the administrator “firsthand the work being done to promote environmental innovation, including solar energy across Morocco.”

[Washington Post]

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]

Pruitt met with lobbyist whose wife rented him condo

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt met with the lobbyist whose wife rented him a $50-a-night condo in Washington, D.C.

J. Steven Hart, a lobbyist for Williams & Jensen, set up the meeting with Pruitt on behalf of executive associated with Smithfield Foods, a large pork producer.

On Friday, The Hill reported that Hart had reached out to the EPA on behalf of a client, Smithfield Foods, contradicting Hart’s previous claims that he had not lobbied Pruitt’s agency last year or in 2018. Hart announced Saturday that he is also stepping down from the firm.

On Saturday, Ryan Williams, a spokesman for Hart, confirmed to The Hill that Hart in fact met personally with Pruitt in 2017 alongside Smithfield Foods’s former vice president Dennis Treacy.

The personal meeting was first reported by The New York Times.

Both Hart and Smithfield Food, however, deny that the meeting was to lobby on behalf of the company. A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods said that Hart’s work was instead a personal action on behalf of Treacy, the Times reported.

Both men claim the meeting was about the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which they are members of. The group works to improve water quality in the bay.

Hart says his work was not on behalf of Smithfield Foods and that he was not compensated for his work.

Pruitt has faced scrutiny in recent days for a number of controversies raising ethics questions, including his rental of a condo from Hart’s wife. He paid $50 a night and only paid for nights he stayed in the unit.

[The Hill]

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