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Scott Pruitt Ignores EPA Experts

After months of waiting, Betsy Southerland finally got her chance in July to make her case to Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Southerland, then the director of science and technology in the agency’s water office, had spent years developing regulation to limit toxic waste from coal-fired power plants. Now, Pruitt was moving towards rolling back a rule that pro-industry groups had complained was too expensive and would cost jobs.

During the meeting, Southerland and her staff presented Pruitt with options for a more limited repeal. But she left feeling unsure about whether he would side with industry or the agency’s own experts. Pruitt was impassive and he asked only clarifying questions, she recalled, making it impossible to read where he stood.

“It’s just a mystery as to how you can persuade him to not follow exactly what industry asks him to do and instead be more accommodating to the facts of the case,” said Southerland, who ended her 30-year career at the EPA shortly after the meeting with an exit letter that criticized the agency for moving to repeal regulations backed by years of scientific study.

In an interview with FRONTLINE for the new documentary War on the EPA, Southerland discussed the growing role of industry interests inside the agency. She said that outside influence has taken precedence over the recommendations of the agency’s own experts.

Southerland described an atmosphere in which political appointees don’t communicate with career staff about where decisions are heading or how they are being made, leaving them “flying blind” in many cases when trying to respond to actions that Pruitt might take as administrator.

“The atmosphere of EPA is really tense,” said Southerland. “What everyone is trying desperately to do is to hope against hope that their facts will change Scott Pruitt’s mind … That they’ll be special and they’ll be able to convince the administrator not to go with whatever the industry people have asked him to do and to give some deference to the science and engineering behind previous regulations.”

In a statement, an EPA spokesman said that the agency has a great working relationship with career employees. It said Southerland was expressing “faux outrage” and that she retired for personal reasons with a “six-figure taxpayer-funded pension.” (Southerland disputed that claim, saying she receives about $60,000 a year.)

Since Pruitt took office in February, the EPA has moved to delay or roll back more than two dozen rules and regulations. On Tuesday, the agency took one of its biggest steps yet, issuing a proposal to roll back the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s signature domestic climate change policy. The plan aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels, but critics like Pruitt said that Obama exceeded his legal authority in crafting the plan.

“We are committed to righting the wrongs of the Obama administration by cleaning the regulatory slate,” Pruitt said in a statement issued Tuesday announcing the agency’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plant.

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