FILE PHOTO: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (EPA) Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in...
Aaron Bernstein

Ordering ban on pesticide, court says Trump’s EPA broke law

Before Scott Pruitt was forced to resign in disgrace from Donald Trump’s cabinet, the far-right EPA chief was often seen as ruthlessly effective in dismantling environmental safeguards. In practice, however, regular readers know that Pruitt’s actual record reflected a clumsy and careless administrator.

The New York Times  reported in April that Pruitt has “often been less than rigorous in following important procedures,” and many of his environmental rollback efforts have already been rejected in the courts.

Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard, said at the time, “In their rush to get things done, [Pruitt and his team are] failing to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. And they’re starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires, They’re producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rulemakings that are not likely to hold up in court.”

Take yesterday, for example.

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the Trump administration endangered public health by keeping the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos on the market despite extensive scientific evidence that even tiny levels of exposure can harm babies’ brains.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to remove chlorpyrifos from sale in the United States within 60 days.

The Obama administration proposed banning the pesticide’s use on food in October 2015. A risk assessment memo issued in November by nine EPA scientists concluded. “There is a breadth of information available on the potential adverse neurodevelopmental effects in infants and children as a result of prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos.”

The Trump administration reversed course in March 2017, prompting a lawsuit filed by farmworkers, environmental groups, and several attorneys general, which argued that Pruitt lacked the authority to unilaterally ignore his own agency’s findings for no reason. In a 2-1 ruling, the 9th Circuit agreed.

All of which suggests Pruitt’s opponents were fortune the former EPA chief was so routinely bad at his job.

Environmentalists may not be as lucky with his acting successor. The New York Times had an interesting report along these lines a couple of weeks ago.

In his first three weeks on the job, Andrew Wheeler, the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has sought to halt two major efforts by his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, to roll back environmental regulations, arguing that the policies are legally vulnerable, according to people who have heard his reasoning.

Mr. Wheeler’s actions signal a strategic shift at the E.P.A., an agency at the heart of President Trump’s push to strip away regulations on industry. Under Mr. Pruitt, who resigned July 5 under a cloud of ethics investigations, the agency pushed for ambitious but fast-paced rollbacks of environmental rules. At least a half-dozen of those have been struck down by federal courts.

Mr. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who served as Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, has brought a more disciplined approach to dismantling environmental rules. It is an approach that may take longer, but it may be more effective in standing up to the inevitable legal challenges.

The article quoted Richard Revesz, an expert in environmental law at NYU, explaining that Wheeler is “trying to be more careful and less sloppy” than Pruitt. “By taking time to improve the quality of the legal justifications, Wheeler may ensure that E.P.A. won’t be subject to losing on certain types of policies,” Revesz said.

It’s important to emphasize that this doesn’t mean the former coal lobbyist currently leading Trump’s EPA is more moderate than Pruitt. On the contrary, when it comes to environmental protections, they appear to share an identical vision.

Rather, Wheeler intends to be competent where Pruitt was incompetent, in the hope of creating regressive policies that endure. For environmentalists, this is a scary prospect.

Environment, Environmental Policy and EPA

Ordering ban on pesticide, court says Trump's EPA broke law