Tag Archives: Scott Pruitt

Federal waters rule gets batted around endlessly in the courtrooms

Confusion is nothing new when it comes to figuring out whether federal agencies have jurisdiction over certain wetlands and intermittent streams under the Clean Water Act. And now the Trump administration has guaranteed that confusion will reign a while longer.

Meanwhile, lawsuits — also nothing new to the Clean Water Act — continue to pile up at a rapid pace.

Some argue that the confusion begins with the 1972 Clean Water Act itself, which requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue permits for any filling or dredging — which covers most development — within the “navigable waters” of the country.

Congress defined “navigable waters” in a way that has generated much confusion and many lawsuits through the years: “The term ‘navigable waters’ means the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas,” the law states.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court couldn’t figure it out and ended up adding to the confusion. In a 4-4-1 split ruling, half the justices focused on “navigable waters” with a narrow definition to include major waterways but avoid federal protection for many wetlands and intermittent streams. The other half of the justices supported a broader definition, which would protect downstream waters by also protecting upstream sources of water.

Writer Steve Zwick of Ecosystem Marketplace does a nice job explaining the legal and historical context for the confusion in a four-part series of articles. Zwick relies on, and gives credit to, the writings of William W. Sapp and William M. Lewis, Jr.

Under the previous administration of Barack Obama, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency worked together to draft a new rule to more clearly define federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands, as outlined by the broader Supreme Court opinion. It became known as the “Clean Water Rule” or “WOTUS” for Waters of the U.S.

Some potential opponents applauded the certainty of the proposed rule, even if they disagreed with some details. (See Water Ways, March 25, 2014.) But others believed that the states, not the federal government, should be in charge of protecting streams and wetlands. It became a common theme to argue that the new rule would regulate the tiniest ditches and farm ponds — something the Obama administration denied.

One of the opponents of the 2015 rule was Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general who ended up suing the Obama administration on behalf of his state. In all, 31 states joined various lawsuits against the rule, with separate lawsuits brought by farmers and industry.

Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator
Photo: EPA official portrait

“President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency currently stands poised to strike the greatest blow to private property rights the modern era has seen,” Pruitt declared in an opinion piece co-authored by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky. The piece was published in The Hill.

Pruitt, of course, is the man that President Trump later named to head the EPA, the same agency he was suing in multiple lawsuits. Pruitt said early on that he would not allow Obama’s WOTUS rule to go into effect.

Before it took effect, the WOTUS rule was tied up in the courts, including an injunction issued by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Under the Clean Water Act, appeals courts can take primary action under certain conditions, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed unanimously (PDF 923 kb) on Jan. 22 that the WOTUS rule is not one of these conditions.

And so the rule, originally scheduled to go into effect in August 2015, was put back into a confusing status, ready to go into effect in 37 states where it was not blocked by an injunction that covers 13 states under an order of the U.S. District Court in North Dakota.

“This is just all-out war. All-out litigation,” Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau was quoted as saying in an article by Ariel Wittenberg in E&E News. “This is good news for lawyers, but it is not going to be settled at all.”

Pruitt’s EPA then moved to finalize the Obama WOTUS rule on Jan. 31 but with an “applicability date” set for two years away. The announced intent was to overhaul the rule by pulling back federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands.

“Today, EPA is taking action to reduce confusion and provide certainty to America’s farmers and ranchers,” Pruitt said in a news release. “The 2015 WOTUS rule developed by the Obama administration will not be applicable for the next two years, while we work through the process of providing long-term regulatory certainty across all 50 states about what waters are subject to federal regulation.”

In the interim, the EPA has announced that it will revert to previous policies and guidelines drafted following the confusing Supreme Court ruling.

You can guess what happened next. On Feb. 6, a total of 10 states, including Washington, plus Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit in New York, claiming that Pruitt’s delaying tactics were illegal. The state officials, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, argued that the federal government ignored the federal Administrative Procedures Act by adopting the revised rule without a meaningful comment period and in disregard of the Clean Water Act’s underlying intent of protecting the nation’s waters.

“The agencies have now suspended the Clean Water Rule without consideration of the extensive scientific record that supported it or the environmental and public health consequences of doing so,” the lawsuit (PDF 1.9 mb) says.

On the same day, the implementation delay was challenged in a separate lawsuit (2.6 mb) by two environmental groups, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation.

“The Agencies’ only proffered rationale for the suspension is that it will promote regulatory clarity and certainty,” the lawsuit says. “In light of the administration’s open antipathy for the rule’s provisions, that rationale rings hollow. But it is also belied by the record. There is no evidence that suspending the rule will promote clarity or certainty, and ample evidence that suspending the Rule will create confusion and uncertainty.”

In Ariel Wittenberg’s story in E&E, Georgetown Law professor William Buzbee talks about how messy things have become.

“If the administration had taken the time to put out proposals that truly and fully engaged with the merits of the Clean Waters Rule and tried to come up with a new read, then it would be ordinary days in the courts,” he was quoted as saying. “But anything they do now, given their proposals, is likely to be legally vulnerable.”

Now the possibility exists that some courts could delay implementation of the original WOTUS rule while others reject the two-year delay. In any case, there is no end in sight to the legal battles, and nobody can be certain about what kind of projects will require federal permits.

Amusing Monday: Climate change is scary enough for Halloween

Samantha Bee’s Halloween show last week is making a big splash on the Internet. The underlying theme was climate change, and the program cleverly makes a connection with this particular time of year, when many people relish the experience of getting scared.

In one segment of the show, which is called “Full Frontal,” singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson wears a picture of the Earth while singing an altered version of her big hit “Be OK” (original version). The revised song, called “Not OK,” addresses the horrors of climate change.

As Michaelson sweetly sings about the dangers of an altered climate, members of the “Full Frontal” cast dance around the stage, representing hurricanes, storms, floods, burning trees and finally an angry sun, as you can see in the first video.

Michaelson sings, “I am clearly not OK, not OK, not OK. Earth is clearly not OK today. I’m getting warmer every day, every day, every day. Climate change is Fu__ing me, oy vey!”

It’s tough to combine humor with a serious message, but Michaelson’s new words on a tragic theme are made palatable by the upbeat tune and the silly dancers.

One viewer commented on Michaelson’s Facebook page that she had ruined a perfectly good song, but the vast majority of her fans were delighted that she had found an amusing way to weigh in on an important topic.

I guess something similar could be said for the entire show, which I decided to go ahead and share on this blog post. Except for the Michaelson segment, the videos are posted in the order they appeared on the show. If you’re not familiar with this show, you should be warned that the language can be coarse at times.

In another segment, more edgy than funny, Samantha Bee goes after Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has begun to reverse direction on President Obama’s plans to move the United States away from coal and toward renewable energy. She points out that before Pruitt became the head of the EPA, he was one of the agency’s biggest enemies. As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the EPA 14 times, largely on behalf of the oil and gas industry. While she can’t stop Pruitt’s anti-regulatory approach, she thinks she can poke him in the eye by demanding a public hearing.

In Act 3, called “(Hot as) Hell House,” Bee takes climate deniers through a Halloween-style haunted house to see if she can scare them into caring about climate change. The setting is 50 years from now, when the Earth is ruined, cockroaches are the only food supply and people cannot escape the droning recitation of Al Gore’s Ted Talk by a creepy John Hodgman. One climate skeptic said the experience had changed her mind, but her reasoning — revealed at the end — was quite amusing.

The haunted house scenes were filmed within the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the site of Terror Behind the Walls. It is said to be America’s largest haunted house, listed as number 1 in the country by Forbes magazine.

No end in sight for dispute over pesticide injury to salmon

It has been 15 years since a federal judge ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service must consider whether pesticides increase the risk of extinction for Northwest salmon populations.


Since 2002, NMFS (also called NOAA Fisheries) has determined that some pesticides do indeed pose a significant risk to the ongoing existence of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet, after all these years, permanent protective measures have not been imposed by the EPA, which is responsible for regulating pesticide use.

One could argue that progress has been made in the face of litigation from environmental groups. The EPA has acknowledged its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, and the agency has adopted a new and evolving methodology for measuring the risk to listed species.

After its initial assessments were thrown out by the courts, NMFS has agreed to complete new biological opinions for five pesticides that pose some of the highest risks. Studies for chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon are scheduled to be done by the end of this year, followed by carbaryl and methomyl by the end of next year.

What we don’t know is whether President Trump’s anti-regulatory efforts and pledge to dismantle the EPA will slow or stop the process of protecting salmon. When it comes to pesticides, environmental activists will tell you that the Trump administration has already taken steps to undermine not only salmon but also human health.

For example, the insecticide chlorpyrifos was scheduled to be banned by the EPA after a new analysis found that its ongoing use on food crops could pose unsafe risks for people, especially young children whose brain development could be impaired.

In March, just before the ban was to go into effect, Trump’s new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed EPA’s course, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture disagrees with the methodology used by the EPA in developing the ban.

Environmental groups, which had already obtained a court order to force the EPA to reconsider its approval of the pesticide, were outraged. They filed yet another lawsuit, as described in a news release from Earthjustice.

“EPA’s stunning reversal on chlorpyrifos in the face of overpowering scientific evidence of harm to children signals yet another dereliction of duty under the Trump administration,” Kristin Schafer, policy director for Pesticide Action Network, said in the news release.

After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to force the EPA to take immediate action on chlorpyrifos, nine U.S. senators stepped in to draft legislation that would ban the chemical. See news release and video from Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and a separate statement from Earthjustice.

Chlorpyrifos is among numerous pesticides that can harm salmon directly and indirectly in a variety of ways, including destroying salmon’s ability to make their way upstream to spawn and killing off the insects they eat.

In its latest biological evaluation released in January, the EPA looked at more than 1,400 toxicity studies before concluding that chlorpyrifos in all its various uses could be expected to have an adverse effect on all threatened and endangered species throughout the U.S. — including killer whales in Puget Sound. Check out the news story by Adam Wernick, Living on Earth.

Of course, chemical manufacturers and farming groups — including apparently the USDA — are not easily convinced that certain pesticides are harmful. They want to go on selling and using these chemicals, as they have for many years. Consequently, they want the EPA to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a chemical is causing damage. But federal law actually requires that all chemicals on the market be proven safe, so any doubt should trigger a reduction of pesticide use or at least greater restrictions on their application.

It is easy to complain about the adequacy of any scientific study. In fact, a disputed difference in methodology between the EPA and NMFS led to a National Academy of Sciences Review, which eventually made suggestions for unifying the agencies’ different scientific approaches.

Through the years, one thing that I have found remarkable is that chemicals rarely appear to get safer with time. For most pesticides, more study raises more concerns, and when you mix pesticides together you never know what you’ll get.

In 2008, shortly after I started writing this blog, I reported on a study by Nat Scholz, a NOAA toxicologist in Seattle who has been studying the effects of chemicals on salmon and other species. This particular study examined mixtures of chlorpyrifos and four other pesticides.

The biggest surprise, Nat told reporter Erik Stokstad of Science magazine, was the strength of the synergistic punch from the pesticides diazinon and malathion. Together, the two chemicals killed all the salmon exposed to them. Even at the lowest concentration, fish were extremely sick.

“It was eye-opening,” Nat was quoted as saying. “We’re seeing relatively dramatic departures” from what happens with each pesticide by itself. See Water Ways, Feb. 19, 2008.

Such findings raise questions about the adequacy of all studies conducted on single pesticides. Pending final reports on pesticide effects on salmon, the courts have imposed 60-foot no-spray buffers along streams (300 feet for aerial spraying) to reduce chemical exposure to salmon and other species.

Nobody can say for sure if those buffers are adequate, but biological opinions from NOAA due out at this end of this year could shed new light on the problem. Meanwhile, chemical manufacturers are hoping those court-mandated reports never see the light of day — and they are putting pressure on the Trump administration to slow down the process.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a lawyer for the three companies — Dow AgroSciences, ADAMA and FMC — called on the EPA to withdraw its biological evaluation, saying the analysis is flawed in several ways. The lawyer also wrote to other federal officials, asking the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delay their biological opinions. According to the lawyer, the court-imposed deadlines are not legally binding.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker of Bloomberg BNA does a nice job describing various viewpoints surrounding this complicated issue. She also describes a close relationship between Dow and the Trump administration.

“The company donated $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee,” she wrote. “Trump appointed Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris to head the White House American Manufacturing Council.”

Dow spent more than $13.6 million on lobbying efforts last year, according to Michael Biesecker, environmental reporter for the Associated Press.

“When Trump signed an executive order in February mandating the creation of task forces at federal agencies to roll back government regulations, Dow’s chief executive was at Trump’s side,” Biesecker wrote.

“’Andrew, I would like to thank you for initially getting the group together and for the fantastic job you’ve done,’ Trump said as he signed the order during an Oval Office ceremony. The president then handed his pen to Liveris to keep as a souvenir,” according to the AP report.

Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office, said Dow executives are doing everything they can to suppress the science surrounding chlorpyrifos and other pesticides — including hiring their own scientists to raise doubts and delay proposed bans for these toxic chemicals.

“We have a person (Pruitt) in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency who really doesn’t believe in the mission of the agency,” Patti told me.

Turmoil over pesticides has been heightened by the Trump administration just when the EPA and NMFS appeared to be coming together to resolve long-held conflicts over how to assess risk and reduce harm to salmon, she said.

Now, after 15 years of court battles, the end of the conflict appears far from over.

“I think we have had incremental progress, because we’ve gotten the agencies to look at this,” Patti said. “Some chemicals are no longer on the market, and some are on the market for only particular uses.”

While there is plenty of disagreement over whether controls on pesticide use are working, for now the no-spray buffers remain in place as a temporary protection.

Puget Sound and other estuaries are facing the federal chopping block

Federal funding to restore Puget Sound and other large U.S. estuaries would be slashed by more than 90 percent under a preliminary budget proposal coming from President Trump’s administration.

Funding for Puget Sound restoration would be cut by 93 percent, from the current budget of $28 million to just $2 million, according to figures cited by the Portland Oregonian and apparently circulated by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Here’s the list.

The Great Lakes, which received a big boost in spending to $300 million in the current biennium, would be hammered down to $10 million. Chesapeake Bay, currently at $73 million, would be reduced to $5 million.

Much of this money goes for habitat protection and restoration, the kind of effort that seems to be kicked to the bottom of the priority list, at least in these early budget figures. The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, appears to be focusing on upgrading water infrastructure, cleaning up toxic sites and reducing air and water pollution, although everything is cut deeply and details remain murky.

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