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What effect will Scott Pruitt have on EPA federal policy concerning hazardous waste disposal?

February 6, 2017

For environmentally sensitive businesses and other enterprises in need of specialized waste disposal and sustainability solutions, what are the ramifications of Scott Pruitt’s ascendency to head the federal EPA?, a paid subscription website providing comprehensive information about state and federal environmental compliance requirements, surveyed its membership about what they thought the size of the impact might be upon their business or facility.

Results showed that some 43 percent thought the effect would be only somewhat significant, 23 percent thought a great deal, 25 percent were unsure, and ten percent thought none at all.

Which group is correct?

This much is known: As Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Pruitt has pushed back against some of President Barack Obama’s most far-reaching environmental mandates. But these presidential fiats have had mostly to do with climate change: the arguable effects that greenhouse gases have on global warming, etc. Pruitt’s opinions and predilections toward hazardous waste disposal, per se, are not so manifest.

So what is the best guess?

The natural temptation, of course, is to extrapolate his skepticism about the degree and extent of global warming—and its connection to human industrial activity—to the rules and regulations that impact hazardous waste disposal and sustainability. So doing, it is logical to expect that companies in need of specialized waste disposal might realize some federal regulatory relief with Pruitt as director. But it’s not a slam dunk.

Consider: the nitty gritty of hazardous waste disposal is affected by at least three things: EPA policy, the interpretation of that policy, and the enforcement of that policy.

As to EPA policy in and of itself, it is largely unknown whether regulatory relief for hazardous waste handling is on Pruitt’s radar. He might leave it to upper echelon subordinates as he focuses on easing air quality and global warming regulations.

As to policy interpretation, this will depend on how many of those upper echelon subordinates he opts to remove and replace. One would expect that Pruitt will want to surround himself with likeminded lieutenants, but he is an experienced administrator and thereby knows that he can only remove and replace so many people before he jeopardizes the operational integrity of his agency.  Some of the legacy team will necessarily remain, and what effect they might have on policy interpretation for hazardous waste disposal is an unknown variable.

As far as enforcement, it is unlikely that Pruitt would (or could) remove and replace boots-on-the-ground personnel who are the historical interface between the EPA and business owners or managers in matters of hazardous waste removal.  Nor would he have to. One way to moderate regulations without suffering the political slings and arrows of easing environmental policy is simply to dial back enforcement. Pruitt has made it known that he has no love for the internal culture of the EPA. Under his watch it might change to be more lenient and business friendly.

The “Green Country” Chicken Battle

If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then Pruitt’s handling of an infamous lawsuit in eastern Oklahoma is eminently noteworthy and might point the way to his approach toward hazardous waste disposal policy.

Tyson Food, Cargill Turkey, and 12 other poultry producers were collectively disposing 300,000 tons of poultry manure per year. Phosphorus and nitrates in the manure were causing algae to bloom in the ponds, streams, and lakes of the Illinois River watershed, which is a 1.1 million acre expanse from Arkansas into Oklahoma.

In 2005, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, Pruitt’s predecessor, sued the 14 companies for damages traced to the pollution and to make them change how they disposed of manure. The case had been languishing for seven years.

When Pruitt took office, instead of pushing for the federal ruling, he negotiated an agreement with Arkansas and the 14 poultry companies to conduct a study of the appropriate level of phosphorus in the Illinois River. “Regulation through litigation is wrong in my view,” Pruitt told The Oklahoman newspaper in 2015.

J. D. Strong, who is the state’s erstwhile Secretary of Environment and nowadays the director of Oklahoma’s Wildlife Department, lauded Pruitt for brokering the settlement.“You can’t force a judge to rule,” Strong said. “Pruitt didn’t sit back and wait or badger the judge for a ruling. He worked to get the states of Oklahoma and Arkansas around the table.”

So what’s the upshot?

Phosphorus levels have declined approximately 70 percent between 1998 and 2015. However, the largest of these reductions occurred before Pruitt’s tenure as attorney general, when wastewater treatment plants were improved and more poultry farmers started shipping animal waste elsewhere for disposal. Levels remain above the existing Oklahoma standard.

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.