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Pruitt’s only saving grace was an inability to advance his proposals — Wheeler won’t have that problem

The news of Scott Pruitt’s departure from EPA was widely welcomed and not just by environmentalists. Frequent reports of his ethical lapses were proving to be an embarrassment, even to people determined to roll back environmental and public health protections. Unfortunately, the allegations of Pruitt’s personal ethics violations created a smokescreen under which the Trump administration has moved forward in misguided and dangerous policy directions that threaten public health and undermine environmental protection. 

We, like the majority of Americans, understand the importance of clean air to breathe; water that is swimmable, fishable, and drinkable; and land that is safe to develop alongside parks and recreational areas. Aggressively anti-environmental efforts present a stark contrast to President Ronald Reagan’s sentiment from his 1984 State of the Union in which he reminded the country “preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense.” 

{mosads}If making America great again is the goal, one could do worse than to nostalgically harken back to our proud “conservationist president,” Theodore Roosevelt, who protected approximately 230 million acres of public land via the 1906 American Antiquities Act and created the United States Forest Service.


We’re from Pittsburgh, not Paris. 

We’re from a city whose residents and workers suffered mightily from the lack of environmental protections in the years before EPA was established in 1970 by the Republican Nixon administration. We know it took years of public outcry and a steady commitment to public health to eventually pass strong laws and put in place critical regulations that enabled Pittsburgh’s transition from a city with visibly dirty air and polluted rivers to a revitalized and thriving community. 

We also know that even if the most visible evidence of pollution is gone, significant risks remain. Fine particulates from factories and vehicles still threaten the lungs of asthmatic children and vulnerable seniors, contaminated soil leaches dangerous chemicals into sources of drinking water, and polluted waters render many fish edible only in small quantities. Pollution doesn’t cure itself; only a sustained effort supported by everyone who cares about clean air, water and land can do the job. That’s why we must focus on the issues — not the personalities — in the coming months.

Pruitt was carrying out the Trump administration’s agenda. He tried his best to make mincemeat of the use of science to determine environmental risks, weaken our ability to combat the significant local impacts of climate change, alter water pollution policies that protect our lakes and rivers, and much more. He attacked public policies and established science agreed upon by multiple previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic; and his actions put all of our lives at risk. 

Pruitt’s only saving grace appeared to be his ineptitude in properly advancing his proposals. For example, his proposed change to how scientific studies inform EPA rulemaking is a flimsy document that many in the environmental community agree does not meet basic legal notice requirements.  

Pruitt’s successor, at least temporarily, will be Andrew Wheeler, a Washington insider and former coal industry lobbyist. Having worked at EPA earlier in his career, he is likely to better understand how to do the government’s business.

If we are lucky, he will rethink many of Pruitt’s policies and determine that they are not in the best interest of American families and communities. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, almost two-thirds of Americans say climate change is currently affecting their local communities, and a majority do not believe the federal government is doing enough. We hope Wheeler will work to restore EPA’s reputation as protector of values with a longstanding history of bipartisan American support.

Across the federal government, civil servants’ oath is to the Constitution, not to any individual president or administration. Their mission is to ensure continuity of good governance, bringing to bear their experience and expertise, regardless of political ideology.

We believe that Wheeler will meet with and listen to environmental experts more than Scott Pruitt did. Based on his history working at EPA and on Capitol Hill, where he forged coalitions with colleagues across the aisle, there is evidence he will.

Even Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del), who worked with him on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, posited that Wheeler “is not Bill Ruckelshaus” (EPA’s first administrator who also returned during the Reagan administrator to lead EPA after a previous period of crisis and corruption), but also not Scott Pruitt. 

Wheeler’s Washington competence, experience and professionalism may make the administration’s proposed environmental rollbacks more resilient to legal challenge. He is less likely to issue flawed proposals and will look to improve his odds when agency decisions are appealed to the federal courts.

Perhaps he will reconsider Pruitt’s rulemaking proposals that were thin on substance and seemingly more directed at placating the fossil fuel industry and others more hostile to environmental protections than working toward sustainable change.

No one has a crystal ball, and we must be vigilant. We need to make it clear that the American public supports common-sense natural resource management and environmental protection. Wheeler might be more reasonable than Pruitt, but he still represents an administration’s commitment to rolling back the very protections that turned places like our hometown of Pittsburgh into healthy places to live and work.

Terry Babcock-Lumish, founder of Islay Consulting LLC, is a visiting scholar at the University of Delaware’s School of Public Policy and Administration.

Michelle Roos is the executive director of the Environmental Protection Network, a network of EPA alumni working to preserve the nation’s bipartisan progress toward clean air, water, land, and climate protection.

Tags Andrew Wheeler Scott Pruitt Scott Pruitt Tom Carper

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