EPA

Environmental enforcement got short shrift in Okla. under Pruitt

As Oklahoma's attorney general, Scott Pruitt has brought more than 30 workers' compensation fraud cases. One case, his press release noted, was against a "two-time insurance agent of the year."

He's brought more than 25 Medicaid fraud cases. And he's issued more than 60 press releases about federal overreach and his lawsuits against federal agencies.

But of the more than 700 press releases he has issued as Oklahoma's top law enforcement official, not one touts an environmental enforcement case in Oklahoma.

In announcing his selection, President-elect Donald Trump assured that Pruitt will pursue EPA's mission to keep air and water clean, as he restores states' "sovereignty" over environmental decisions.

But to the extent that his choice of what to highlight in press releases reflects Pruitt's priorities, environmental enforcement in the state hasn't been a focus.

Pruitt's supporters say that reflects that Pruitt has prioritized cooperation over confrontation on state environmental matters. His only press release on an Oklahoma environmental issue came after he formed a committee with Arkansas to study water quality in the Illinois River. His Democratic predecessor had sued Arkansas chicken companies for pollution. Pruitt left the lawsuit in limbo.

"When you have protracted litigation, it takes resources away," said Ed Fite, who dealt with the case as the administrator of the state's Scenic Rivers Commission. The commission was folded into another agency last year.

But Pruitt's approach to federal agencies under the Obama administration has been decidedly confrontational. And his detractors say his cooperation is really just catering to polluting industries.

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"The only thing he's done is to make sure we get no additional protection at the federal level," said Johnson Bridgwater, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club.

Federal focus

Pruitt took office in 2011 after campaigning against overreach by the federal government during the Obama administration. He established a "federalism office" to challenge federal laws and disbanded the Environmental Protection Unit created by his predecessor (Energywire, Dec. 16, 2016).

Criticizing the federal government was a popular position in Oklahoma. But to some, disbanding the environmental unit was a sign that environmental enforcement was out of favor.

"It was hard then to figure out who over there was supposed to handle that," said Mark Derichsweiler, a former manager with the state Department of Environmental Quality. He's now vice chairman of the state Sierra Club chapter.

Officials in the attorney general's office say environmental work continued in the newly created office of the solicitor general.

"Under the leadership of AG Pruitt, this team has held bad actors accountable and protected stewardship of Oklahoma's natural resources," said Lincoln Ferguson, Pruitt's spokesman in the attorney general's office. Its accomplishments, he said, included "holding accountable oil and gas companies that were profiting off pollution and defrauding taxpayers."

That referred to cases where the attorney general's office filed suit against oil companies for "double-dipping" in a state gas station cleanup fund.

But one of those cases, against BP PLC, has been dormant since it was filed in 2012. The other, against ConocoPhillips, was filed only after the attorney general's office for months fought a whistleblower case filed by former state employees (Energywire, Jan. 17).

Ferguson provided a list of environmental accomplishments during Pruitt's tenure. None include criminal charges, and many are cases that were ongoing when Pruitt arrived in the office. Of the 14 specific cases listed, federal agencies such as EPA or Nuclear Regulatory Commission had the lead role in at least six.

Among the purely state cases were representation of the state wildlife department in three fish kills. The department was able to locate records for two. In one, a feed company had to pay $4,022 for restitution and investigative costs. In the other, a manufacturer agreed to pay $30,000 over five years and $1,707 for investigative costs.

But the poultry pollution case has been at the center of Pruitt's effort to switch state environmental enforcement from confrontation to cooperation. The lawsuit, filed by his Democratic predecessor, was at a key juncture when Pruitt took office.

After a 52-day trial in federal court, the parties were waiting for a ruling from the judge. They're still waiting.

In six years, Pruitt and his deputies have not pressed the judge to rule, and he hasn't. Instead, Pruitt pursued negotiations with his Democratic counterpart in Arkansas, Dustin McDaniel. They agreed to hire a team of researchers from Baylor University to study the standards (Energywire, Jan. 3).

The researchers reached a conclusion last month, largely affirming Oklahoma's pollution limits.

Fite, who has been involved in Illinois River Basin issues for decades, credits Pruitt for getting the two sides talking again after years of costly litigation.

"For the first time in 34 years, we agreed to something without litigation," he said. "We've done some good for the Illinois River. We've got a long way to go."

But critics say it was the years of studies that wasted time, and failing to press the case prevented progress.

"When Pruitt came to office, there was already an agreement in place with Arkansas to reduce pollution in the Illinois River," said Derichsweiler, who was involved in the case at DEQ. "Most people thought his actions sabotaged that agreement."

Critics also note that he'd taken tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from poultry interests.

Abrupt change could be ahead

While his crusades against the federal government have attracted attention, Pruitt's light touch on environmental enforcement inside the state has gone with little notice.

Oklahoma is a one-party Republican state where business interests have come to expect considerable deference. The names of corporations are even inscribed on the Capitol dome. And most environmental enforcement in the state takes place without the involvement of the attorney general. Without a clear statutory role, it is up to each attorney general to decide how much to focus on environmental issues.

And Oklahoma has shown it is more willing than other states to put up with problems caused by industry. For example, state officials hemmed and hawed for years as scientists linked the wastewater disposal practices of the state's powerful oil and gas industry to hundreds of earthquakes shaking the state. Some environmental groups have tried to link Pruitt to the earthquakes, but he's had little involvement, and his help hasn't been requested (Energywire, Jan. 13).

"Oklahoma is not a really good steward of the environment," said University of Tulsa law professor Gary Allison. "We have a lot of industry here that likes a light regulatory hand."

Moving from Oklahoma to Washington could be an abrupt change. He's been managing a 200-person office handling legal issues. EPA is a 15,000-person bureaucracy with broad jurisdiction for protecting the environment and keeping people healthy.

He'll be facing Democratic legislators, who have far more authority in Washington than they do in Oklahoma, even in their minority status. And he'll contend with an environmental lobby much stronger at the federal level than in his home state.

But after working with him to protect Oklahoma rivers, Fite said he thinks Pruitt is up to the task.

"I think everybody can be comfortable with General Pruitt," he said, "once they get to know him."

Twitter: @MikeSoraghan Email: msoraghan@eenews.net

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