Agency’s first boss wonders: ‘Why is EPA doing that?’

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Former Republican U.S. EPA chief Bill Ruckelshaus was worried from the start about what President Trump and Scott Pruitt would do to the agency.

It’s been even worse than he expected, he told E&E News last week in an interview.

Ruckelshaus, who was EPA’s first-ever boss under President Nixon in the 1970s, returned to lead the agency after it was engulfed in scandal during the Reagan administration. He was picked to try to burnish the agency after President Reagan’s first EPA boss, Anne Gorsuch Burford, resigned in 1983 amid a scandal over the Superfund program.

Ruckelshaus opposed Pruitt’s agenda and policies as EPA administrator from the start. Pruitt is the only EPA administrator since the agency’s inception that Ruckelshaus didn’t offer to help.

The ex-EPA boss has been dismayed in recent weeks as allegations of Pruitt’s ethical lapses have dominated headlines and cable television. He spoke with E&E News by phone last week from his home outside of Seattle.

How are you digesting the news about Pruitt?

I watch it. I feel very strongly about the agency and how it’s faring under all this. I know it affects the morale of the people. I knew that more obviously when I went back in [the 1980s] than today, but it’s some of the same stuff. And it’s really hard for the people who stay there to function when the administrator’s not sympathetic to the mission.

How do you think this is going to play out?

I don’t really know. I don’t know how serious his $50-a-night room and use of planes and all that is taken by this administration. It very much depends on their attitude about it, and if they think it’s bad enough, they might let him go. My sense from the way he’s functioning and the way he seems to be supported by the president, that’s not going to happen.

Have there ever been ethical scandals like this at EPA?

Not that I’m aware of. I don’t think [Burford] was involved in this kind of scandal, the stuff with rooms and use of planes and that kind of thing. I don’t think she ever was challenged on that front; it was more the way she managed the agency.

How would you compare Pruitt and Burford? Is the agency in more turmoil right now?

How the people in the agency are reacting, I can’t tell. I read the stories in the paper that talk about, ‘EPA does this,’ and my initial reaction is, ‘Why is EPA doing that?’ Then I recognize it isn’t the people who are there normally — it’s the people that have been brought in that are taking the steps that are in many respects aimed at tearing down the whole apparatus that was set up over 40 years to protect public health and the environment.

What are some of the headlines that have surprised you?

Whether [Pruitt] is changing the automobile standards for California. He said he wanted to send the responsibility for dealing with these issues back to the states, which I question. But he said he wanted to do it so that California takes it on and he’s trying to take it away from them. It’s sort of a doublespeak approach of management that doesn’t make any sense. His actions don’t follow what he says he wants to do.

Whether he says he wants to spend more money on getting lead out of drinking water, which I think is a worthy cause. Then he cuts the budget, or he recommends the budget be cut to handle that kind of problem.

Are the recent headlines about Pruitt’s actions embarrassing for EPA as an institution?

It sure is. The secret to making EPA work now is just like it is when Anne Burford was there. You’ve got to restore trust. The agency has got to be clearly doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And the only way to restore trust is to open the whole thing up.

Did you or Burford have guards outside of your EPA office?

I didn’t have any guards, but I don’t know whether she did, either. I wrote to her, just as I did every administrator that’s ever been there, with the exception of Pruitt, and offered to help any way I could. It was a complicated agency, and there were some things you could do to make it work better. I finally met with her, but it was too late; she was well into her sort of terminal problems.

Pruitt’s the first administrator that you haven’t reached out to and offered to help?

Yeah. He was appointed, and I watched the Senate hearings, and I just decided he wasn’t committed to what this agency is all about. It’s about trying to protect public health, to do it as efficiently and effectively as possible and to protect the environment. I didn’t sense that that’s what he had in mind.

How would you compare the motivations of Pruitt and Burford?

I think [Burford] was more of an ideologue, and he’s more on the side of the economic interests. In the equation of balancing those against public health and the environment, he’s very much on the economic side of things.

If Pruitt leaves or if President Trump fires him, what’s your advice to the administration?

Find a first-rate administrator and back him up. … If all he wants is deregulation, you can get that, but what you do is destroy the infrastructure that we put in place to make this all work, and then we’ll have to do it over. That’s not a happy time.

When you returned to EPA, do you think you were able to get the agency back to where it was before?

I think it came back pretty quickly. The people who were there with Anne Burford hadn’t had as much experience as the group [Pruitt] has got there now, as I understand it. I haven’t talked to him, so I don’t know. They seem to me to better understand these laws and how they work and are therefore more skillful at pulling them down. I don’t think it’ll be permanent. I think that the public will once again get riled up about something and erupt and insist that the government deal with it more effectively.

You were critical of Pruitt and Trump going in. Has it been what you expected?

It’s been worse because they’re not being honest. They’re not saying what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to describe what they’re doing — particularly Pruitt — in terms of protecting the air, the water and making all these beautiful phrases that we all make about protecting a pristine environment. But I don’t think they mean it, because the programs they’re putting in place or the changes that they’re making to the existing programs belie that that’s what they want to do, starting with sending back the decisionmaking process as much as they can to the states.

Do you have ideas for who should take over after Pruitt?

No, I think I’d put the kiss of death on them. … I don’t really know who the best people are, but I’m sure they’re out there.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.