Soon after being confirmed as the new chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt said this to a conference of conservative activists:
“I think people across the country look at the EPA the way they look at the IRS.”
Pruitt’s remark makes clear the sort of people he’s listening to and aims to serve. Corporate polluters look at the EPA the same way corporate tax cheats look at the IRS — as the enemy.
Regulation can be burdensome even for good companies trying to do the right thing.
But for those dumping waste into rivers or spewing toxins in the sky, the slightest shadow of oversight is threatening and therefore despised, for obvious reasons.
The good people of Flint, Michigan, whose tap water turned undrinkable, likely hold a different view of the EPA than, say, coal lobbyists. If you live in Flint, you might wish the agency were stronger, not weaker.
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt, in league with gas and oil companies, made a sport of suing the EPA. So far he seems content with the White House notion to whack the agency’s budget by 24 percent and fire 3,000 employees.
Polluters have been whining about the EPA since it was signed into existence 47 years ago by that radical environmentalist Richard Nixon. The idea was that the American families have a right to breathe clean air and drink clean water.
This concept lay at grave odds with the prevailing operating practices of copper mines, coal-burning power plants, plastics factories and industrial farms. Conflict was inevitable, and the EPA was regularly vilified for meddling in local matters.
Here in Florida, the agency became a key player in the complex, politically fraught effort to clean up the Everglades. Progress has been halting and uneven, but without the EPA — and the eye of the Justice Department — there would have been almost no progress at all.
The federal role in Everglades restoration was expanded by U.S. District Judge Alan Gold, now retired, who had become increasingly exasperated by the stall tactics of Florida officials and the weakening of pollution limits for farm runoff waters.
In a 2011 order, Gold irritably concluded that the state and the South Florida Water Management District, “have not been true stewards of protecting the Everglades in recent years.”
He was dead right.
Pruitt’s takeover of the EPA is happy news for Big Sugar and other industrial agricultural interests that have been trying for decades to shake free of federal scrutiny.
They eagerly await the day when anemic state agencies — not the EPA — are the ones in charge of regulating levels of phosphorus, mercury and other chemicals in the farm runoff that flows into public waterways.
The reason for that preference is simple. State politicians are much easier to manipulate than federal bureaucrats. All it takes is money.
Showered with campaign donations from Big Agriculture, Gov. Rick Scott and GOP lawmakers have obediently labored to deliver control of water policy to major landowners and user-groups, with the exception of ordinary Floridians.
Last year’s gift-wrapped water bill placed the state’s farming and ranching companies on a laughable honor system, allowing them to self-monitor their cleanup efforts with only occasional state inspections.
Of course, if the honor system worked and industries cleaned up their own mess, there would have been no need for an EPA all those years ago.
Recently, seeking to shed all federal oversight, Florida officials distributed maps intended to show that water quality throughout the Everglades has improved to the threshold of almost-clean.
This sunny report came from the South Florida Water Management District, whose board is stacked with the governor’s surrogates. The good news puzzled the Miccosukee Tribe, which says phosphorus levels in some reservation waters are seven to 10 times higher than legal limits.
The nutrient-loaded runoff comes from canals transporting farm effluent south to tribal wetlands bisected by Alligator Alley. A spokesman admitted the district has quit monitoring pollution in those canals, saying it was part of a research program that ended.
The state is now safe to shrug off those alarming phosphorus readings from the Miccosukees and promote its own selective, upbeat water data.
There’s a receptive new audience at the Justice Department, and the EPA. Scott Pruitt will probably be delighted to abandon future custodianship of the Everglades to Gov. Scott and Big Agriculture.
It’s true that water flowing off the vast farm fields below Lake Okeechobee is much less polluted than it was 20 years ago, but that’s because federal judges kept kicking the plan forward.
The feds haven’t been perfect partners in the restoration epic, but without that pressure the hacks in Tallahassee would have bailed a long, long time ago.