Scott Pruitt’s nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency has drawn dire warnings about his impact on climate change, but the Oklahoma Attorney General could wreak just as much havoc on another core EPA mandate: the protection of clean water.
Pruitt is well known for his legal challenges to President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but his assault on clean-water protections has been just as fierce. In 2015, Pruitt led a multi-state lawsuit against Obama’s Clean Water Rule, a regulation aimed at protecting source water for one in three Americans. As with his Clean Power Plan suit, Pruitt and his allies succeeded in blocking the rule’s implementation.
“I don’t think he’s found an EPA rule he hasn’t wanted to sue over,” says Michael Kelly, Clean Water Action’s national communications director.
Trump said repeatedly on the campaign trail that ensuring “crystal clear, clean water” would be a priority for his administration. Yet his proposed policies and cabinet picks, particularly his selection of Pruitt, tell a very different story. At a time when much of the nation’s water infrastructure is nearing the end of its lifespan, and federal funding for water quality enforcement is at historic lows, the incoming administration threatens to cripple the EPA’s ability to protect clean drinking water nationwide.
“This is about protecting an irreplaceable part of life: safe, efficient, affordable water,” says Henry Henderson, Midwest program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Gutting these protections is not something I believe the American people voted for in this election.”
While much of Trump’s agenda is not yet known, the concrete proposals he has made do not bode well for water quality. One of the clearest signals Trump has sent is his intention to scrap the Clean Water Rule, a fight Pruitt has also championed. Finalized last year, the rule expands federal protections for some 20 million acres of lakes, wetlands, and streams—drinking water sources for 117 million Americans. Unlike other parts of Trump’s environmental agenda, scrapping the rule is a core Republican objective. In the 18 months since the rule was finalized, more than a dozen GOP governors have sued to stop its enforcement, along with two oil companies.
The Clean Water Rule is designed to help prevent crises like the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that left half a million Toledo residents without safe drinking water in 2014. Caused in part by agricultural runoff into wetlands and streams emptying into Lake Erie, cyanobacteria produced by the algae has been linked to diarrhea, dizziness, vomiting, and liver damage. And Ohio is not alone. Similar outbreaks have threatened water supplies in more than 20 states this past summer—a significant increase over previous years. Without a robust Clean Water Rule, experts say, one in three Americans could risk exposure to these and similar contaminants.
Yet even more worrisome to clean water advocates is what lies in store for the EPA as a whole. On the campaign trail, Trump had repeatedly promised to abolish the agency outright, effectively devolving environmental protection to the states. The idea—by far the most extreme environmental position taken during the GOP primary—may also be difficult to implement. As The Guardian explained earlier this year, abolishing the EPA without repealing the laws the agency is required to enforce—not to mention its constitutional mandate to regulate greenhouse gases—would create legal chaos.
“Taking apart an entire agency that is embedded in multiple parts of American life and decision-making would be extraordinarily difficult,” says Henderson. “It’s probably more a rhetorical jab than a serious policy proposal.”
Still, Trump wouldn’t need to abolish the EPA outright to hobble its enforcement authority—he could simply cut its budget beyond reckoning. Upon accepting the nomination, Pruitt declared that the “American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations,” echoing his previous calls to rein in the agency’s “activist agenda.”
Shortly before Election Day, Trump appeared to walk back his abolition stance, saying he’d instead like to cut the agency’s budget down to “shreds,” while attempting to refocus it on protecting clean water and air. “Once you start to go beyond that, you start to lose all of us,” he said at a Florida event this past October. Trump then proposed cutting 70 percent to 80 percent of federal environmental regulations.
But Lynn Thorp, national campaigns director at Clean Water Action, says Trump’s conflicting statements don’t add up. “When you’re slashing EPA’s budget, you’re slashing EPA’s ability to ensure clean water,” she warns. “Budget is policy.” Already, chronic underfunding and partisan attacks have severely impacted the agency’s ability to hold states and municipalities to federal water standards. Since 2010, the agency’s budget has been slashed by one-fourth, and its workforce reduced by 10 percent. The EPA remains the only federal agency that has not had its funding restored following budget sequestration six years ago.
Those budget holes have already directly impacted water quality enforcement. A recent study by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators found that states need an additional $240 million in order to “fulfill the minimum required functions” of the Safe Drinking Water Act. “Already we didn’t have enough staff to do the job,” says Thorp. Cutting the EPA further would “undercut the protections and effectiveness of a critical agency that has already been significantly depleted,” Henderson adds.
But experts say proposals like these are only part of the picture. On the campaign trail, Trump “was so contradictory and all over the place, we don’t know where he’s going to come down,” says Kelly, of Clean Water Action.
CLEAN WATER ADVOCATES knew they were in trouble shortly after the election, when Trump tapped Myron Ebell, director of the far-right Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), as head of his EPA transition team.
One of only a very few Washington think tanks with its own legal team, CEI has under Ebell’s leadership emerged as a leading opponent of climate science and environmental regulation in almost all its forms. Through ferocious lobbying, advocacy, and litigation, CEI has, in Ebell’s words, sought to “undermine the ‘prevailing scientific wisdom’” on climate. Given CEI’s reputation for ruthlessness and close ties to the fossil-fuel industry, Ebell’s appointment has had environmental advocates very concerned.
“Personnel is policy in this case,” says Kelly. “It tells us a lot about what Trump is planning to do.”
In addition to its attack on climate science, CEI has been a fierce and persistent critic of national water quality standards, arguing in a 2008 report that localities under the Safe Drinking Water Act “struggle to meet federal mandates that do not make sense in all drinking water systems.” The report concluded that water quality enforcement should be devolved to the state level, a proposal experts say could put millions at risk.
“If we were to devolve [enforcement] to the states, you’d have a free-for-all,” says Thorp of national Clean Water Action. “You’d have a two-tiered drinking water system where way more arsenic is allowed in one state than another. It’s such a nightmare scenario we’d have to recreate the Safe Drinking Water Act almost immediately.”
Although Pruitt has stopped short of directly attacking the Safe Drinking Water Act, his worldview may not be all that different from Ebell’s. Like Pruitt, CEI has fiercely criticized the Clean Water Rule, and has repeatedly taken federal regulators to court over environmental rules, including the Clean Power Plan. Pruitt also has ties with many of CEI’s fossil-fuel industry underwriters, including Exxon, Koch Industries, and trade groups like American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. “Scott Pruitt and Myron Ebell are incredibly similar people in terms of how they see things,” says Kelly. “There are a lot of similarities there and none of them are good.”
Indeed, on Trump’s selection of Pruitt, CEI put out a statement hailing him as “a leader in the pushback against EPA’s unlawful regulatory overreach and destructive war on coal.”
Like CEI, Pruitt casts much of the EPA’s current agenda as a violation of state sovereignty. While serving as attorney general in Oklahoma, Pruitt created the nation’s first ever “Federalism Unit” to investigate and combat federal overreach, via letters to lawmakers, testimony before Congress, and litigation. Pruitt also worked with the Republican Attorneys General Association to create a “Rule of Law” initiative that researched and litigated against federal regulations of all kinds. In a National Review op-ed in May, Pruitt compared the battle against climate regulation to the Revolutionary War, vowing to “hold the EPA accountable to the laws that created it.”
Pruitt’s fundamental distrust of federal authority does not bode well for water quality standards, which depend on strong federal enforcement. According to a report commissioned by the state of Michigan in March, it was the EPA’s reluctance to hold state agencies to federal standards that led to lead contamination crises in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere.
“We’re in a crisis as a result of the failure to enforce the law,” says Henderson. “The EPA has shown a significant reluctance to making these guarantees a reality.”
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who blew the whistle on Washington, D.C.’s lead contamination crisis in 2004, agrees. “The existing Lead and Copper Rule is largely being ignored and circumvented,” Edwards says. “There’s no reason to think gutting the EPA will improve quality of life or public safety.”
Exactly how far Pruitt and the GOP-controlled Congress will go in reshaping the EPA’s authority remains to be seen. But one point of consensus will likely include killing the Clean Water Rule and further reducing the EPA’s budget. In July, the House passed an EPA funding bill that drastically reduced the agency’s budget—including for core water quality programs. The bill cut wastewater treatment assistance to states by $400 million, and blocked implementation of the Clean Water Rule.
Yet unlike the version the House passed in 2015, the bill did pump an additional $207 million to Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds. Still, experts say even that increase wouldn’t be enough for states to fulfill the minimum required functions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. “We have every reason to anticipate that the House will continue to shrink EPA resources,” says Henderson. “There is no ducking [from] the fact that the GOP House took aim and continues to bang away at core enactments that guarantee quality of life.”
All of this is happening at a time when much of the nation’s water infrastructure desperately needs an overhaul. The nation’s oldest water pipes, built in the 1880s, were designed to last no more than 120 years, while newer infrastructure built after World War II was designed to be replaced after 75 years. The EPA estimates that revitalizing our water infrastructure would cost $384 billion over 20 years. The American Water Works Association, water utilities’ largest trade group, warns that number could be closer to $1 trillion. Experts say that failing to make these investments could put residents at even greater risk of water contamination, particularly from the lead in aging service lines.
However this debate shakes out after the inauguration, water advocates are prepared for a fight. “We know it’s not going to be easy,” says Kelly. “It’s gonna be four years of pushing and fighting and finding new and creative ways to protect clean water and the climate.”
But, he adds, the stakes in this battle have already motivated a lot of new people to get involved. “I’ve had folks reach out to me that weren’t political before. Trump and his supporters are going to run into a wall of opposition.”
When Trump visited Flint, Michigan, in September, he was not greeted warmly. Two days before his arrival, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver had slammed the GOP nominee for failing to make a public statement about Flint’s lead contamination crisis, and for neglecting to alert her office of his planned visit. “Flint is focused on fixing the problems caused by lead contamination of our drinking water,” she said, “not photo ops.”
Flint residents had good reason to be suspicious of Trump’s intentions, even then. With his selection of Pruitt to head the EPA, Trump has sent a clear signal to residents in Flint and elsewhere around the country that the nation’s water pollution crisis is about to get worse, not better.