Former EPA attorneys slam ‘sue and settle’ policy

Former EPA attorneys slam ‘sue and settle’ policy
© Greg Nash

Dozens of former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attorneys are assailing the Trump administration’s policy meant to curb legal settlements with environmental groups.

The 57 attorneys, who all served in nonpolitical career roles, accused EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Energy: Watchdog probes Pruitt speech to mining group | EPA chief promises to let climate scientists present their work | Volkswagen manager gets 7 years for emissions cheating Scott Pruitt's year of environmental destruction MORE of deliberately misrepresenting legal settlement practices and the work of attorneys both at the EPA and the Justice Department.

“Your recent pronouncements make unfounded and unsupported accusations about EPA’s longstanding and non-partisan approach to defending the agency’s actions in lawsuits that Congress empowered members of the public to bring when the agency allegedly fails to follow the law,” they wrote in their open letter released Monday.

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“Your misrepresentations do the public a great disservice by sowing confusion about the important role the public plays in ensuring that EPA complies with and enforces public health and environmental protection laws. Your directive compounds that disservice by attempting to give regulated parties a special and powerful seat at the table with no corresponding role for other members of the public,” they said.

The letter comes almost a month after Pruitt rolled out a policy to clamp down on what critics call “sue and settle,” the practice of federal agencies like the EPA settling lawsuits with environmental groups by agreeing to consider whether to take the regulatory action that the groups want.

“The days of regulation through litigation are over,” Pruitt said at the time.

“We will no longer go behind closed doors and use consent decrees and settlement agreements to resolve lawsuits filed against the agency by special interest groups where doing so would circumvent the regulatory process set forth by Congress.”

In a Monday statement, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman defended Pruitt’s directive issued last month.

“EPA stands by its directive to promote transparency and public participation in the settlement process, eliminating the ability of special interest groups to circumvent the regulatory process set forth by Congress, and putting a stop to any unnecessary and inappropriate attorney fee payouts with taxpayer money,” she said.

In the 13-page letter, the lawyers argue against numerous aspects of the directive.

For one, they say Pruitt’s premise — that the EPA used legal settlements to replace the standard regulatory process, with a particular end in mind — is flawed, and that that kind of settlement is not allowed. Instead, the EPA only agrees to a deadline by which to make a decision, often extending a deadline it already missed.

They further argued that the new policy gives too much say to industry groups to help direct potential EPA decisions, discourages settlements when they would have been appropriate and increases agency costs, among other problems.