EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt hosted a group of religious leaders in his office last week.
There were conditions: There would be no talk about climate change or Pruitt's recent bad press.
On Friday afternoon, Pruitt and several EPA staffers met with nine faith leaders from different religious backgrounds at EPA headquarters to talk about environmental justice issues, according to one attendee.
"We were not allowed to talk about climate; it was not part of it. It was apparently a condition of the meeting," said the Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network. "It was a cordial meeting, but I was a little disheartened that he didn't want to talk about climate."
Participants were also warned not to talk about the torrent of negative media coverage Pruitt has received in recent weeks regarding the administrator's spending while in office. He has faced an onslaught of criticism about his housing, travel and security detail in Washington, D.C.
The Franciscan Action Network organized the 45-minute meeting in Pruitt's office, which was supposed to be an off-the-record, private discussion. Hescox said he was surprised to see a photographer at the meeting and was "disconcerted" when the administrator tweeted photos of it later that day. The tweet was later deleted at FAN's request, according to Hescox.
EPA staff relayed the restrictions on the discussion to the Franciscans, Hescox said, but he couldn't say whether they originated from Pruitt or the staff.
An EPA spokesperson confirmed that Pruitt had met with "environmentally focused interfaith leaders" to talk about the agency's mission.
"While it is our common practice to post photos from the Administrator's meetings for public awareness, there was a miscommunication regarding post-meeting media plans and we took down the post, at the request of the group," the spokesperson said in an email.
During the meeting, Pruitt spoke in detail about two of his favored issues, safe drinking water and Superfund site cleanup. Only four of the attendees, including Hescox, had time to make their requests to the administrator. One person asked for a faith-based office in EPA, another spoke about water issues in New York, and Hescox focused on the impact of toxic chemicals on developing fetuses.
Pruitt avoided any mention of the recent ethics controversies and let participants know he had just come from having a Big Mac at the White House, Hescox said.
"We did have a good meeting talking about the things he wanted to talk about. [But] it was hard to have an in-depth discussion on [the] realities of what is happening in the world," he said.
Hescox said that he found out about the terms of the discussion just a half-hour beforehand and would not have participated if he had had more advance notice.
Hescox has been sharply critical of Pruitt since his nomination. The meeting was the first time they met face to face. In an op-ed in The Christian Post published April 6, Hescox said Pruitt's deregulatory actions betrayed anti-abortion values.
"President Trump's Administration, especially the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, have done little to defend the forgotten, especially our unborn and newly born children. While claiming to be pro-life, they have done little to fulfill EPA's mission, 'To protect human health and the environment,'" Hescox wrote. "Instead they have pandered to industry lobbyists, proposed bailouts to the dying fossil fuel industry and 'lived high on the hog' instead of defending the lives and health of our children."
Hescox said Pruitt did seem to recognize his name when they were introduced but did not take the opportunity to respond to his criticisms.
"He kind of had the eyebrow raised up," he said.
Hescox kept his remarks to Pruitt last week focused on environmental risks to fetal life.
He requested that the administrator name fetuses as an "at-risk group" under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have rejected Hescox's past efforts to add protection under the law for fetal life, calling it a "poison pill."
Republicans have feared that it would require more research from the oil and gas industry, and Democrats have shied away from appearing to be "pro-life," Hescox said.
"[Pruitt] said he would consider it," Hescox added.
Although he didn't talk about climate change at the meeting, Hescox did make sure Pruitt had some reading on the subject. He left the EPA boss a copy of his book, "Caring for Creation: The Evangelical's Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment."
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