White House forced EPA to squash water contamination report to avoid a "public relations nightmare"

Under EPA head Scott Pruitt, the Trump White House tried to block the release of a report on water contaminants

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 14, 2018 3:58PM (EDT)

Scott Pruitt (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Scott Pruitt (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

A new report reveals that President Donald Trump and his head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, have managed to realize the worst nightmares of their environmentalist critics — namely, that they would prioritize their political and business interests over the health and safety of the American public.

A federal health study on how a certain class of toxic chemicals can endanger human health at much lower levels than previously believed was blocked by the Trump administration, according to a report by Politico. The report was due to be released by a wing of the Department of Health and Human Services called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which had concluded that the chemicals had caused serious water contamination near chemical plants, military bases and other sites in states like Michigan, New York and West Virginia.

"The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge," one White House aide, who has not been identified, argued in an email that was forwarded by Trump's appointee for overseeing environmental issues at the Office of Management and Budget. Later the same staffer wrote in the email that "the impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be."

As of yet, the study has still not been published and there is no pending date scheduled for its release.

"Families who have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water have a right to know about any health impacts, and keeping such information from the public threatens the safety, health, and vitality of communities across our country," Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., declared in a statement on Monday.

It is worth noting that, as the Politico report pointed out, the Trump administration is hardly the first one to place political and business interests over science and the public's welfare. Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, acknowledged as much when she wrote in one email that "OMB/OIRA played this role [of coordinating an interagency review] quite a bit under the Bush Administration, but under Obama they just let each agency do their own thing."

Yet during the tenure of Trump's pick, Pruitt, the EPA has pursued an anti-science agenda with, particularly notable aggressiveness.

In April Pruitt proposed a rule that would make it harder for legitimate science to be used to shape public policy by requiring all underlying data to be publicly available. One month earlier, Pruitt undid many of the automotive regulations implemented by President Barack Obama that were intended to make cars more environmentally safe. A month before that, it came out that Pruitt had made sure that references to man-made climate change were removed from the EPA's website.

In addition to his reactionary environmental policies, Pruitt has also attracted controversy because of a number of ethics scandals that have surrounded his tenure. These ranged from trying to spend $25,000 in taxpayer money on a soundproof box for his office, living in a townhouse co-owned by the wife of a powerful energy lobbyist and allegedly giving unethical pay raises to certain staffers.

Even The Weekly Standard, a conservative media outlet that supports Pruitt's anti-environmentalist agenda, has called for him to be fired as a result of his ethics scandals:

Pruitt’s use of public money for non-essential purposes has become a pattern. He’s used taxpayer dollars to purchase lavish dinners and accommodations in five-star hotels; a new, expensively retrofitted Chevrolet Suburban; first-class flights, domestic and foreign, for himself and his security detail; a massive security entourage; “special hiring authority” pay raises for favored staff; and costly office renovations (this last violated two laws, according to the Government Accountability Office). None of these profligacies, taken by itself, would present a major political problem. But together, they present a major one.

The authors also noted that Trump has not yet fired Pruitt despite abundant reasons for doing so (they claim to be mystified, although there are reports that Trump is refraining from letting Pruitt go because he hopes to possibly use him as a replacement for Jeff Sessions as attorney general).

The president has stood by his EPA chief so far, though at this point it’s unclear why. There are at least 11 outstanding federal probes into Pruitt’s conduct. Other administration officials—Tom Price, the former health secretary, and Omarosa Manigault, a communications staffer—were let go for lesser reasons. At the very least, and even granting a news media determined to beat Pruitt with any stick it can find, the EPA administrator has become a constant distraction. Trump seems to relish distractions—but distractions of his own creation, and he didn’t create this one.

The editorial concluded:

As those who view the environmentalist movement with skepticism, we find the whole thing deeply regrettable. But we reject the common assumption that public officials should get a pass so long as they hold the right policy opinions, whatever those opinions are. We share Pruitt’s views on environmental deregulation and value his accomplishments in office. But the time has come for him to

Overall, Pruitt is shaping up to potentially be remembered as one of the worst EPA heads in history. Bear in mind that the chief function of the EPA is to protect the American people from potential health risks in their environment (Pruitt himself has acknowledged that preserving the purity of our water is an important objective), but by placing his political agenda on issues like climate change and helping business over the safety of a public threatened by man-made global warming and water pollution, Pruitt has fatally compromised his own ostensible goals.

Even worse, though, is that Pruitt can't even argue he's doing these things for the reason that conservatives normally cite — namely, that it will save taxpayer money and help big business. Through his personal conduct, it is clear that Pruitt is not genuine in his professed concern for fiscal rectitude, and corruption in any government agency is always bad for legitimate business interests.

As even The Weekly Standard points out: Pruitt's behavior is unacceptable.

Salon Talks: The War on the EPA

A thoughtful discussion on the ongoing war to disempower the EPA.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency Epa Scott Pruitt