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Continuing EPA blunders highlight a culture of indifference, both under Democrats and Republicans

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"People start pollution. People can stop it." - voiceover on iconic Keep America Beautiful PSA from the 1970's.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Although long since forgotten by the American media, two years ago, the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region of Arizona and New Mexico was suffering from a totally avoidable blunder on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency, led by the ineffectual and embarrassing EPA Director Gina McCarthy.

The disaster, involving toxic mine seepage and poisonous mine tailings getting into a Colorado river near the town of Silverton and flowing downstream, past more towns and onto Navajo lands – all on McCarthy’s watch. The EPA had been warned that messing with the plugged mine would cause a spill. And yet it is the people who pay.

This involved 3 million gallons of toxic waste at the time. And this was while Democrat Barack Obama was still president. Congressional Republicans at the time demanded McCarthy’s head, demanding she resign. Funny how things change when disasters happen and a Republican is at the helm of the EPA – an agency created by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970 because the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio had caught on fire and the pollution problem in America was spinning out of control.

Back then, both Republicans and Democrats worked together in hopes of solving the problem of pollution. This, at a time when environmentalism and conservation were actually embraced and taken seriously. It was viewed as an American thing, to protect the environment. After all, look at the gray, poisoned landscapes of those "dirty commie" countries. The Soviets destroyed an entire sea, for god’s sake.

The Aral Sea is now a mere ghost of its former self, although after 50 years it seems to be coming back to life. The United States was not going to go down that road. Cue the John Denver record

Anyway, a brief recap from The Denver Post: “The 2015 spill ignited outrage at the EPA and a failure to handle a long-festering environmental problem. State agencies also have failed to deal with the problem of toxic mines contaminating rivers and streams. Gold King Mine waste contaminated headwaters of the Animas River, turning the river mustard-yellow. A toxic plume flowed through Durango and into the San Juan River in New Mexico. It spread through Navajo lands and into Utah, where the San Juan River meets the Colorado River.”

At the time, in late August 2015, Red Dirt Report noted that the U.S. government – with a long history of either disinterest or outright hostility toward Native communities – made a bad situation worse for the Navajos when they shipped oil-tainted well disposal tanks to the reservation as a way to get fresh water to the tribal members, now that the San Juan River – turned a sickening, mustard-yellow color - was temporarily poisoned with heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and mercury.

Getting McCarthy to even bother to go out to the Four Corners region to see the disaster firsthand was nearly impossible, and her words and actions downplayed the scope and seriousness of the disaster. She was the same EPA administrator who testified before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that her agency did not cause the lead contamination problems in Flint, Michigan’s water supply.

However, the EPA’s Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins, in October 2016, found that McCarthy’s EPA waited too long - seven months - to issue an emergency order in Flint, despite having enough information to issue an emergency order under the the guidelines of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The ever-defensive McCarthy repeatedly claimed the careless and clueless Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder “misled” her and the agency and told Congress, as reported in The New York Times in March 2016: “I wish we had gone further, I wish we had yelled from the treetops. But there is no way my agency created this problem.

A once clean Animas River turned mustard yellow from Colorado mine pollution. (NBC)

Give Gina McCarthy an award for "Passing the Buck." She will be one of the EPA heads that most people will be glad to forget.

A few months earlier, faced with the Gold King Mine disaster and the toxic pollution flowing in plumes downstream and into water supplies, McCarthy offered more “bureaucrat-ese” saying in a press release on Aug. 11, 2015 that the EPA was working “tirelessly” to respond to the Gold King Mine disaster and that “it pains me to see this happening.”

And yet she would not resign. She was an entrenched bureaucrat, supported by President Obama. And interestingly enough, after President Trump tapped Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the new EPA director, the culture at the EPA - while politically and philosophically different in many ways - has maintained its entrenched culture of protect the agency more than the environment it is tasked to protect.

And believe it or not, back in August, EPA Chief Pruitt came to Colorado to view the Gold King Mine disaster site firsthand, two years after it happened. Pruitt took a jab at Obama's EPA, saying they walked away from their responsibilities to the land and the people affected by this environmental catastrophe. Pruitt promised to make things right and make sure that federal cleanup of the Gold King site and other mining sites would be a priority. Pruitt also said rejected damage claims from those affected by Gold King Mine would be reevaluated. 

Where things stand, four months later, remains unclear. What we do know is that Pruitt is going to prioritize 10 new Superfund sites - out of more than 1,300 - and he was not sure if Gold King Mine would be on the list (it is a priority, The Denver Post noted this month, with animals like otters reportedly returning to the Animas River). It also remains unclear if Pruitt has met with Navajo leaders in the wake of all of this. The Navajos sued the EPA over the spill and are seeking $160 million in damages.

Sure, Pruitt is hobnobbing with the Centennial State's top GOP officials (same officials who send "state-authorized pollution" to neighboring Oklahoma in the form of legal marijuana, according to dimbulb and one-time drug warrior Pruitt), touting how much they are doing to patch up what Obama's EPA failed to do, but there are Native Americans downstream who appear to be forgotten in all of this. Perhaps, as Indian Country Today reported after the 2016 election that while Native Americans voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, support for her was "mild," as she made no real effort to reach out to American Indian voters, beyond sending Vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine out to share her "forward" message. Republicans might want to take note of that, and that said, Pruitt's EPA should take Navajo concerns seriously going forward.

Of course Trump's insulting "Pocahontas" comments and indifference to Native concerns over Bears Ears National Monument in Utah don't help matters.

YELLOW WATER

The Navajos built a special website – it’s still up, check it out here for more information – called Operation Yellow Water, and the tribe was particularly critical of the serious bungling on the part of Obama’s EPA, noting that the “EPA failed to immediately warn the public about the crisis – it was a full day later that they finally begin issuing water use warning.” And it should be noted that both the Animas and San Juan rivers – the later flows into the Colorado River – “serve as a source for five water supply systems.”

And while an EPA inspector general found the agency not guilty of any wrongdoing, this past June, unsurprisingly, no recommendations for avoiding future problems were suggested in the OIG's report.

The Denver Post, meanwhile, notes that Gold King Mine is just one of many, many thousands of inactive mines in the American West - some shut down more than a century ago, but with pollutants still getting into the local ecology, noting that in 2016, a Colorado survey found that there were more than 140 toxic flows still unaddressed, poisoning more than 1,800 miles of waterways.

And with Trump's proposed EPA Superfund cuts, getting affected areas cleaned up - like Gold King Mine - may prove to be more difficult.

It's interesting, in light of Pruitt's failure to even mention the Native communities along the affected rivers in his following statement to The Denver Post: "Farmers and ranchers, business owners, the recreational activities that occur on the Animas River — all were impacted, and from my perspective it was a wrong that we need to make right.”

Like his boss Trump, Pruitt took another swipe at Obama and McCarthy: “The message here: We’re taking steps of accountability where the past administration took no steps,” Pruitt said.

Indeed. But there is so much still to do. But coming from the super-secretive and slick Scott Pruitt, his words will likely be followed by very little action.

CONES OF SILENCE AND SEWAGE-LADEN WATER FOUNTAINS

Last week, The Washington Post reported that Pruitt and a large entourage of sycophants flew to Morocco to promote natural gas, which seems utterly bizarre and unnecessary - and, frankly, counter to the duties and responsibilities of the EPA administrator. 

But then in November, Pruitt took his staff to a high-end South Carolina resort to rub shoulders with the EPA-critical American Chemistry Council. And this on the taxpayer's dime. This follows the installation of Pruitt's Get Smart-worthy "cone of silence." Cost? $25,000. That's your money.

Aren't there polluted rivers and mountains to be cleaned up, Scotty?

So, Pruitt's eagerness to hide what he is doing while spending copious amounts on luxury travel for himself and all of his underlings, toadies and yes-men-and-women ... well, it's going to catch up with him. Particularly as it becomes clear that he has real contempt for the duties of the Environmental Protection Agency, increasingly referred to as the Environmental Pollution Agency, as poop-laden sewage explodes out of EPA office water fountains ... seriously!

There's a metaphor in here somewhere ... (Twitter)

Alarmingly, Scott Pruitt, according to this Daily Kos article “Scott Pruitt is Paranoid, Preposterous and Absolutely Out of Control,” reports that the EPA head – as shared to Daily Kos by anonymous EPA employees – say that Pruitt “often makes important phone calls from other offices rather than use the phone in his office, and he is accompanied, even at EPA headquarters, by armed guards, the first head of the agency to ever request round-the-clock security.”

Paranoid much, Scotty? These guys are totally losing their minds. So, do you think they have America's environmental protection at heart?

The Daily Kos, of course, is a liberal political blog. But they make some salient points. Such as: “If Republicans are genuinely concerned that someone in Washington is planning a coup, the guy who is obsessed with secrecy, meeting with foreign leaders for no apparent reason, and building a personal army might be a place to start.”

Democrats have been particularly critical of Pruitt’s unnecessary junkets and wasteful spending. Pruitt is known for his caviar-level tastes, and its leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans.

It seems strange that Administrator Pruitt would prioritize a trip to Morocco to discuss natural gas exports while there is no shortage of more pressing issues here in the U.S. that actually fall within the jurisdiction of the agency he leads,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “I presume Mr. Pruitt is aware his agency’s inspector general is conducting an investigation into his questionable travel, which makes his decision to take this trip an odd choice at best.”

Odd choice indeed. Hope the couscous was superb, Mr. Pruitt. 

UP TAR CREEK WITHOUT A PADDLE

And lest we forget the whole Tar Creek debacle in Picher, or as Politico appropriately calls it: "The Environmental Scandal in Scott Pruitt's Backyard."

Here, we are reminded of Pruitt's close ties to Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy (where RedDirtReport.com is blocked by the company server we are told) and his Tulsa-based pal and deranged, pigeon-slaughtering sociopath U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe are working hard for their good-ol' boy network and leaving struggling Oklahomans out in the (poisoned) dirt.

Writes Politico's Malcolm Burnley: "Tar Creek is also part of the environmental legacy of one of the state’s—and nation’s—leading politicians, Senator Jim Inhofe, and his longtime ally, Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who is now head of President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency.

After the EPA struggled to clean up the area, in 2006, Inhofe endorsed a plan in which a trust overseen by local citizens would use federal dollars to purchase homes and businesses in the toxic region so residents could move elsewhere. Then, when the plan proved so problematic that it spawned more than a half-dozen civil lawsuits and an audit into possible criminal wrongdoing, Pruitt, as the state’s attorney general, invoked an exception to state freedom-of-information laws to keep the audit from being an open public record."

Continuing, Burnley writes: "Now, that decision is coming into new light as many Oklahomans clamor for the audit to be released, suggesting that its revelations will prove embarrassing to Inhofe, who played a key role in designing the buyout plan, and cast doubt on Pruitt’s decision not to move forward with charges. Last week, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called Campaign for Accountability raised the stakes even further, filing suit in Oklahoma courts to force the release of the audit.

If you take a look at Scott Pruitt’s record, you see a general disregard for transparency,” said Daniel Stevens, the group’s executive director. “I don’t think it’s outside our bounds to say that Pruitt is trying to hide evidence of criminal wrongdoing.”

Pruitt's shady behavior while Attorney General here in Oklahoma seems to have spread into his time at the EPA. And the Republicans who called for Gina McCarthy's head two years ago are turning a blind eye to Pruitt's baffling and disturbing behavior. 

Why? It couldn't be political posturing could it? Or is it something else? Regardless, there needs to be an investigation into Pruitt's behavior as EPA Administrator and efforts made to find out who is really benefitting from his official decisions and why he is dodging transparency.

Recall back in February, Red Dirt Report reported on the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Media & Democracy sued Pruitt, then merely Trump's EPA nominee, for failing "to provide public access to official emails and other documents for more than two years." They also demanded that Pruitt not destroy the documents they were seeking.

As Oklahoma ACLU Executive Director Ryan Kiesel said at the time: "Pruitt's refusal to turn over these documents is unreasonable, unjustifiable. The lawsuit we filed today serves notice that when it comes to accountability and transparency, no government official is above the law."

But Scott Pruitt, once Oklahoma's top cop, as it were, does seem to think he is above the law and believes Trump and Inhofe will do anything to protect him.

What are you hiding Scott Pruitt?

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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