Week 77: Pruitt Is Gone, but the Pollution Isn’t

Plus, the EPA’s stall on chlorpyrifos and Ryan Zinke’s criminal socks.

July 13, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Pruitt’s Parting Gift

Poof! Scott Pruitt disappeared from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week, almost literally in a cloud of smoke. Because as the former EPA chief slinked out the door, the agency announced plans to loosen restrictions on glider kits.

What’s a glider kit? While it sounds like something you’d buy from a high-end kite catalog, it is, in fact, a new tractor-trailer cab sold without an engine. Why would anyone want that? Because every time the federal government tightens emissions standards, older engines are grandfathered, which means the earlier, weaker standards still apply to them. By installing a used engine into a new cab, the trucking company can avoid complying with the current pollution laws.

Glider kits are an environmental menace. According to a 2017 EPA report, glider vehicles produce approximately 50 times more pollution than modern trucks. Luke Tonachel, director of NRDC’s Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project, calls them “health hazards on wheels,” because the emissions are linked to asthma, lung cancer, and premature death. For that reason, the Obama administration put a cap on the number of glider kits a truck manufacturer could produce.

Of course, rather than find a way to produce low-polluting vehicles more cheaply, industry decided to fight the regulation. Fitzgerald Glider Kits, one of the largest manufacturers of the engine-less cabs, contracted with researchers at Tennessee Technological University to produce a report purporting to show that the machines emit roughly the same amount of pollution as other trucks. The research was bogus. The investigators never released a full version of the study, despite repeated requests from the EPA, environmental groups, and other academics. Following accusations that the university sold low-quality research to a polluter, the president of Tennessee Technological University disavowed the study.

The embarrassing episode should have marked the end of the argument, and of glider kits in general, but, since Pruitt’s EPA was immune to shame, the agency has moved forward on its plan to allow more health hazards on wheels to roll into your town.

“How Long Can the EPA Sit on This?”

After much hemming and no small amount of hawing, the Obama administration proposed to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos in 2016. Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin, and EPA research showed that Americans are likely to consume unsafe amounts of the chemical in their food and drinking water. Dow AgroSciences, which manufacturers chlorpyrifos, objected, but the Obama-era EPA ultimately sided with the scientists rather than the corporate lobbyists.

You can probably guess what happened next. Dow Chemical donated $1 million to the Trump inaugural fund, and the company’s CEO served on one of President Trump’s business councils. Scott Pruitt was introduced to Dow’s leader in March 2017. A short while later, Pruitt obeyed his corporate supporters and reversed course on chlorpyrifos, suspending the ban while telling a federal judge he needed more time to review the science.

In the succeeding 16 months, the EPA made no discernible progress toward developing a chlorpyrifos policy. This week, environmental groups (including NRDC) appeared in court to force the agency into action. The EPA argued, apparently with a straight face, that the judge couldn’t rule on the case until the agency had made a decision. In other words, according to EPA lawyers, the agency can avoid accountability indefinitely simply by doing nothing.

 The judges were not pleased.

“These cases are never simple. And it's a complex record. And we recognize that. But it's been going on for years now,” said Judge Jacqueline Nguyen. “How long can EPA sit on this?”

Nguyen’s fellow judge, Jed Rakoff, was in a professorial mood: “It's like a law school homework assignment. Maybe you need an extension on your paper, but not a year.”

We’ll see if interim agency head Andrew Wheeler can get his homework done in a more timely fashion than his expelled predecessor.

Even Their Socks Are Unethical

The Trump administration keeps finding new ways to violate ethics rules. Scott Pruitt, the Mozart of ethics violations, may be gone, but Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is determined to carry on, ignoring rules in ways large and small. In June, news broke that Zinke was caught up in a bizarre tangle of financial relationships with companies he’s supposed to be regulating, a situation that may or may not end with him owning a microbrewery.

This week, something new: The U.S. Office of Special Counsel opened an investigation into Zinke’s MAGA socks. That’s right. MAGA. Socks.

At a meeting of the Western Governors’ Association last month, Zinke unveiled the world’s most sycophantic pair of hosiery, featuring Trump’s campaign slogan beneath a knit portrait of the president looking vaguely like an opponent from the 1980s video game “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!”

Zinke’s socks, in and of themselves, were no crime—except against fashion and good taste—but he made the mistake of tweeting a picture of them. That tweet likely violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits certain government officials from engaging in political campaigning.

Although Zinke took the picture down, his explanation was a classic bit of Zinke-ian obliviousness: “I tweeted a pic of my new socks not realizing it had what could be viewed as a political slogan.” You didn’t realize the president’s campaign slogan could be viewed as a political slogan? Really?

If the Office of Special Counsel determines the socks were a violation, Zinke could be fined up to $1,000. He would also become at least the fourth administration official to become entangled in accusations of illegal campaigning, joining White House social media director Dan Scavino, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and White House aide Kellyanne Conway.

On an admittedly petty note: This is the second sartorial faux pas for Zinke, who can’t tell which end of a cowboy hat is the front. Let’s hope we don’t see some kind of Zinke underwear scandal in the coming weeks.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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