It’s been a week of big changes — and turmoil — at the Environmental Protection Agency. First, President Trump ordered a freeze on EPA grants and contracts and barred anyone at the agency from communicating with the public. Then, in a stance which flies in the face of the agency’s current scientific integrity policy, a White House official announced that EPA research may be subject to review by the administration. Seriously, you keeping up? So to get some perspective on it all, we reached out to Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the EPA under George W. Bush. Here’s some of what she had to say. And to hear our full interview with Whitman, check out our new podcast Trump on Earth.
The Allegheny Front: Let’s start by talking about Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma Attorney General who Trump has nominated to head the EPA. He’s a pretty controversial pick — for starters, because he’s been such a staunch opponent of the agency he may soon be leading.
Christine Todd Whitman: Well, I was pleased to listen to his testimony in his confirmation hearing because I think he struck a more moderate tone. How far that goes remains to be seen. At the end of the day, you serve at the pleasure of the president. You were not elected to anything; it was the president, so it’s going to be his agenda. It’s troublesome that there seems to be — and Pruitt is someone who seems to have accepted this — a distrust of the science. Science is behind everything that the agency does, as well as numerous other parts of the federal government, and the scientists are dedicated to preserving public health and protecting the environment. And so when you have a preponderance of scientists who agree on anything, you really need to listen to them. Hopefully going forward, we’ll see more of that. But I’m a little worried.
LISTEN: Christine Todd Whitman on Trump’s EPA
AF: Scott Pruitt is someone who has taken money from, and has a close relationship with, the oil and gas industry. So if and when he becomes EPA administrator, do you think those in the agency— and the American public — can trust him to defend the agency’s rules to protect air and water and to work on climate and other environmental issues?
CTW: Well, he’s in a very different position now. He’s not running for office; he’s not going to be running for office in the next year or two. He’s an administrative appointee now. So where he took money from before, given the state he was in and the issues he was pursuing, that’s one set of issues. He should be able to separate himself from that. He even said in his hearing that his personal beliefs on things like climate change don’t matter. His job would be, if he gets confirmed — and I think he will — to protect human health and the environment. And he doesn’t have to worry about raising money to do that.
AF: The Trump administration has sent strong signals that it’s going to be friendly to industry — cutting EPA regulations by 75 percent. When you started at EPA, there was also a push to make the agency friendlier to business. What’s different this time around with the Trump administration?
CTW: Well, it seems like almost a scorched earth policy with the agency. They just don’t want anything to do with it; they’d do away with it if they could, and they probably will try. Short of actually doing away with it, they’ll starve it for money. They won’t allow them to hire any more people; they’ll make life difficult for people who are there. At least it seems that is one approach that they’re thinking of taking. And given that, we’re going to be in a bad place. There are a lot of other sources of power without having to put aside every protection that’s been put in place to keep us healthy and keep the environment clean.
AF: On the topic of regulation, Scott Pruitt said during his confirmation hearing that states should have more power over environmental regulations. But he doesn’t support California’s efforts to reduce vehicle emissions, which go beyond federal standards. As a Republican, how do you think powers should be divided between the states and the federal government on environmental issues?
CTW: Well, frankly as a former governor, I’m a strong supporter of state’s rights. But Mother Nature really doesn’t care about geo-political boundaries. So the role for the Environmental Protection Agency is to set the base of what is safe. This is the minimum to which you can expose people and have them still be safe and healthy. If the state wants to go beyond that, then they absolutely should be allowed to do that, in my opinion. But they shouldn’t go below. You have to remember — EPA has access to scientists with a depth of knowledge that most states can’t afford. That’s why it’s so important to keep that scientific basis behind everything that’s done: To ensure that we do know what the minimum acceptable parts per billion [level] is in water or air that we can tolerate as human beings and still have healthy lives.
AF: EPA has now been asked not to speak with the media or put out any information publicly. As a former head of the EPA, what do you think about that?
CTW: Well, I’m not comfortable at all with the overall attitude of the administration toward the press. When a spokesperson for the administration talks about “alternate facts,” that’s a scary thing. You don’t see that in this country. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about facts. We’re about truth. We’re about honesty.
AF: Besides voting for leaders in an election, what recourse does the public have when it comes to weighing in on EPA policies or rules?
CTW: Well, I was never prouder of being a woman than I was last weekend when you saw the women’s marches. That’s the kind of thing we can do. People need to remember that the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 — signed into law by Richard Nixon, a Republican, working with a Democratic Congress. That was a time when there was a whole lot of bad stuff happening in this country: We had race riots in our cities; we had anti-Vietnam riots on our college campuses, kids shot by the National Guard. And it wasn’t because the brains in Washington suddenly decided there’s nothing else we really need to worry about so let’s do something about the environment. It’s because the public stood up and said: Enough already. We’ve had it. We don’t like that rivers suddenly burst into flames. We’re tired of being told it’s a bad air quality day, stay inside. We don’t like seeing our land turned into a garbage dump. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, and that concentrated the attention of the Congress and the President. And they moved forward and established the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act. These were things that happened because the public demanded it, and we just need to remind ourselves of that.
Christine Todd Whitman was head of the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush. Want to hear more of Whitman’s thoughts on the Trump administration? Check out our new podcast Trump on Earth.