By Dominique Browning
Moms Clean Air Force
No one was more surprised than I when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt asked Moms Clean Air Force in for a meeting. After all, we have been relentless in our critique of the way he is dismantling Environmental Protection Agency protections.
For good reason. As I write to you, Pruitt is in the process of repealing America’s Clean Power Plan, put together with years of input and support from governors and businesses; it is our nation’s frontline defense against the power plant pollution that is fueling climate change.
- He is rolling back vital protections against oil and gas pollution.
- He has paralyzed the enforcement of our new toxic chemical law.
- He has driven out of EPA hundreds of respected scientists and stacked EPA’s Science Advisory Board with polluter allies.
- He is working with car industry executives—disgracefully—to weaken clean air protections from cars, and turning back years of Made-In-America progress in cleaning up dirty diesel trucks.
Given all of these deeply damaging actions, we wondered whether we should decline to meet. We questioned what good could come of sitting down with someone who seems determined to make our world dirtier and more dangerous for our children. Pruitt, a lawyer with deep ties to the oil and gas industry, has spent a year meeting secretly with polluters.
But we decided we wanted to tell the Administrator, face to face, that we are gravely concerned about actions that protect polluters, not people. And we wanted to hear what he had to say about air and climate pollution. So my colleagues Molly Rauch, who has written to you frequently about the health impacts of pollution, and Trisha Sheehan, who manages the dedicated team of women across the country who meet with senators, mayors, governors, and other elected officials, and I recently gathered around a conference table in the EPA offices.
Pruitt’s energy is intense and focused. He started right in with news of two programs he intends to launch: increased Superfund site cleanup on a speedier schedule, and an ambitious (as-of-yet unfunded) infrastructure program to rid drinking water of lead. As he pointed out, the water contamination problems in Flint are problems in cities across the country. The Administrator talked about the damage lead does to children’s developing brains. He stated that his goal is to entirely eliminate lead from the drinking water supply in 10 years.
As he was describing his plans, my very conservative Dad’s voice began scrolling through my mind; he was raised in rural Kentucky, so I hear this lesson he taught us as kids with his accent. “Always remember: Actions speak louder than words.”
Children’s health is the reason smog standards have been a top priority for us. We shared our concern that Pruitt was not fully committed to implementing the 2015 smog standard. In response, he claimed that he was, even though he disagrees with the standard, and he intended to add more monitors in cities.
Actions speak louder than words.
I talked about being a new grandmother and wanting to know that the world with which we are blessed will be one that all our grandchildren can enjoy. I don’t believe there is red science versus blue science on climate change: there are red solutions and blue solutions to the problem, but science doesn’t come in colors. I told him that we need action on climate pollution, to which he replied, “Yes, global warming is happening.” Then Pruitt pointed out that methane was a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
To my surprise he agreed that methane should be regulated—but in a different way. That, of course, would mean years more delay rewriting rules, while gas companies waste precious fuel and spew more toxins into the air. Pruitt already tried to delay implementation of oil and gas methane standards, a move that thankfully the courts rebuffed.
Pruitt also led the way in pulling us out of a historic global agreement to cut dangerous climate pollutants. While 2017 closed as the worst year, by far, for damaging, expensive storms, President Trump and his EPA Chief have isolated America by not having a comprehensive, national plan to cut climate pollution.
Actions speak louder than words.
Pruitt talked about being more aggressive in bringing criminal charges against polluters, rather than slapping ineffective fines against them. Again: Bravo. Let’s see it happen—immediately. But Pruitt has made substantive cuts in enforcement capacities—and gone so far as to eliminate his environmental enforcement office in his home state of Oklahoma.
Actions speak louder than words.
I told the Administrator that Moms Clean Air Force started out working on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Who would want to protect polluters who put into the air poisons that harm brains developing in utero? Pruitt insisted that he has done nothing to undo those protections. We told him that as far as Moms are concerned, undoing protections against mercury and other toxic emissions would be like hitting a third rail.
Over and over again we kept bumping up against Pruitt’s lawyerly, intense focus on statutory minutia. We respect precision. But not as a ruse to deflect, delay, and run roughshod over the core mission of EPA. We want to see an urgent, highly articulated dedication to protecting people’s health—our children’s health. Instead, it seems as if Pruitt were still suing EPA.
Furthermore, the holding pattern into which EPA safeguards have now been thrown creates profound uncertainty in the industries being regulated—whether power plants or automakers. No one knows whether to invest in cleaning up when a clean air standard might be delayed for years, or killed outright.
Administrator Pruitt frequently returned to his frustration, his anger that “the narrative” that now surrounds his work leaves no room for giving him credit for any good his EPA might do.
I mentioned that he might consider his role in creating that narrative.
“You mean, like having sued EPA fourteen times?” he said.
“Yes, that might be the beginning of it,” I replied. “But then you rode into town guns blazing.” He declared his intention to cripple the agency, and took zealous aim at every single health protection passed in the last eight years.
His has been a destructive agenda—not a constructive one. It is EPA’s legal and moral responsibility to protect our children. That is Pruitt’s job—and he has not been doing his job.
If Administrator Pruitt does indeed lay down effective, funded, enforceable and timely steps to get lead out of the water, moms will be the first to celebrate.
But we will also demand stronger lead dust and paint standards. Of course, Moms are demanding. We have to be.
And we will keep demanding that EPA clean up our power generation, get smog out of our neighborhoods, and get methane and other volatile organic compounds out of the air.
Actions speak louder than words. The stakes are high.
We aren’t interested in further polarization around the issues we hold so dear. We are interested in progress—in protecting people, in protecting our most precious resource: our children.
All of us on the Moms team tend to be hopelessly hopeful and relentlessly optimistic. How else can we keep up the fight? We know full well the daunting challenges we face. All our preparation for this meeting reminded me, over and over, of a life lesson that I still bang my head against: stop looking for the magic words. In any disagreement, there is usually no one phrase, no one word, no one conversation, even, that will change peoples’ minds. There is no single key that unlocks the door of an opinion.
There is, instead, only engagement. Only connection. Only repetition. Showing up: Over and over again. Proceeding in good faith, with good intentions. Then, maybe, we can see change put into action. And maybe not. Even so, there is always a huge value in fighting an agenda that undermines our well-being. Truth has a magnetic pull—it makes our moral compasses ever stronger.
Thank you to our members for all the work you have done. It is your passion, and your principles, that we brought to our meeting with EPA.
And yes, of course we thanked Administrator Pruitt for his hospitality. He will continue to hear from us—and we will stay united in our determination to clean things up.
Photo: Gage Skidmore