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Former Bush EPA chief assails Pruitt's focus on industry impacts

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush has sharply criticized current administrator Scott Pruitt, accusing him of prioritizing the health of industries over the health of the public.

"They have moved into a stage where everything is looked at just from the economic impact — just from the perspective of the industries being impacted by [regulation], and not on the basic responsibility of the agency, which is to protect human health," former administrator Christine Todd Whitman said in a recent interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence

Whitman was specifically responding to a May 9 memo by Pruitt setting new requirements for reviews of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS. According to that memo, the agency will seek additional information on the economic and energy impact of the air quality standards when considering tweaking the limits.

A key court case bearing Whitman's name

Pruitt acknowledged in the memo that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 in a case bearing Whitman's name that the agency cannot use that information to decide if the limits should be modified. However, he said the EPA has been failing to follow the provisions of the Clean Air Act that allow the agency's independent scientific advisory committee to provide advice on any adverse welfare, social, economic or energy effects that may result from various strategies to comply with NAAQS.

In addition, Pruitt recalled that the high court ruled in the 2001 case Whitman v. American Trucking (99-1257) that the advisory committee's advice on the effects of various attainment strategies "is unquestionably pertinent" to the NAAQS rulemaking record and relevant to the standard-setting process.

Pruitt added that the questions EPA wants the advisory committee to answer "may elicit information which is not relevant to the standard-setting process, but provides important policy context for the public, co-regulators, and EPA."

Applauding the Pruitt move in statements, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas; and Jeff Holmstead, former EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said the reforms were necessary and would allow the EPA to consider all relevant data and information when updating critical air quality standards. Holmstead, now a partner with Bracewell LLP, said policymakers must "understand the adverse public health, social, and economic effects of the actions that will be needed to meet inflexible air quality standards."

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Christine Todd Whitman
Source: Christine Todd Whitman

Whitman recalled several legal matters that arose surrounding the economic impact of the NAAQS. She said when Congress wrote the Clean Air Act, under which NAAQS is promulgated, lawmakers were fairly prescriptive about when the EPA should and should not conduct cost-benefit analyses, as well as when the agency may do so optionally. However, she also acknowledged that the distinction "was murky in some of those areas." She suspects her EPA wanted to consider cost-benefit analyses for NAAQS for the overall decision-making process, but in a way that would not negate the important public health considerations.

Pure science vs. economic interests

On broader issues, Whitman sees Pruitt's latest move on the NAAQS as another in a long line of actions that will ultimately lead to a weakening of the key air quality standards. That will be "a real step backward," she stated.

Whitman agreed that regulations need to be reviewed and revised, but she said that the EPA must do so in a way that is consistent with the most up to date science. "You don't roll back a regulation on a whim. You have to have a scientific backing for why this pollutant is no longer a threat to human health," Whitman said. Therefore, Whitman does not believe the EPA's policy changes for NAAQS are "going to stand the test of time."

The regulation of NAAQS pollutants has been one of the EPA's greatest success stories, Whitman said. Between 1985 and 2012, Whitman said the U.S. population increased by over 20%, energy demand rose more than 35% and the real GDP almost doubled, all while the country cut the six key criteria air pollutants by 67%.

Plenty of new evidence has emerged to further underscore the danger of the six NAAQS pollutants, Whitman said. She cited one recently released scientific study that found children whose mothers were exposed in late-term pregnancy to particulate matter can have higher than normal blood pressure. Although Pruitt himself has said he wants to work on "attainment issues" to ensure states are meeting the NAAQS levels, Whitman said his actions have not matched these proclamations.

"Trying to dial back on the criteria pollutants as we learn more and more about the adverse impacts on public health from particulate matter and [the other NAAQS] pollutants, in the name of economic development, makes no sense," Whitman said. "We have seen that ... we can build the economy while reducing the pollutants, and we know just the opposite is true if you're endangering people's health. That takes a negative toll on the economy."

Whitman agreed that the industry can play an important role in providing information for regulatory actions such as NAAQS. But she said the current administration has relied almost exclusively on industry data and scientific reports rather than pure science.

"It's not that [industry interests] don't have a right to be heard and [have] a place at the table, they do, but they cannot dominate and that's the problem that we are seeing," said Whitman.

Another former Republican EPA administrator has been critical of Pruitt, for his lack of transparency. William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator after the agency was established by Richard Nixon in 1970 who served in that role until 1973 and again during the Ronald Reagan presidency from 1983 to 1985, recently penned an editorial published in the Washington Post criticizing the lack of transparency at EPA under Pruitt. "Pruitt operates in secrecy," he wrote. "By concealing his efforts, even innocent actions create an air of suspicion, making it difficult for a skeptical public to give him the benefit of the doubt."

The EPA did not respond to request for comment.