A week after assuring he would enforce a multistate Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the EPA defended his actions challenging it in court as a federal overreach.
A week after assuring senators he would enforce a Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the EPA defended a lawsuit that called the plan federal overreach. And he questioned whether the plan has made a difference in the bay's health.
New testimony from Scott Pruitt, the nominee for EPA administrator, came in his written response to questions posed by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin and others. Cardin had asked whether the lawsuit, which Pruitt joined as Oklahoma attorney general, put him at odds with the Environmental Protection Agency's mission.
"In each case filed against the EPA, in the view of the State of Oklahoma, the EPA had acted in excess of the authority granted to it by Congress," Pruitt answered in written testimony to senators. Cardin's staff provided the responses to The Baltimore Sun.
Pruitt also suggested that the Chesapeake cleanup plan is not responsible for recent improvements in bay health, and he would not commit to defending it against any future legal challenges. But he said he would nonetheless enforce the plan because it was upheld by a federal appeals court.
"If confirmed, I will continue to enforce the law and will continue EPA's leadership role as a member of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council," he wrote. "I agree that progress would be difficult without a collaborative process."
The comments dimmed environmentalists' hopes that Pruitt might shift his stance on the bay blueprint and other EPA programs despite a history of suing the agency he is poised to lead.
At his Jan. 18 hearing before a Senate committee, Pruitt committed to enforcing pollution reductions pledged by six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and said he would push for federal funding for the bay's restoration.
"The discrepancies with his written responses to questions from the committee members are greatly troubling and definitely will be influential in how Senator Cardin may vote on the nomination," said Sue Walitsky, a spokeswoman for the Maryland lawmaker.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen has already said he will vote against Pruitt's nomination. A vote has not been scheduled, but the Republican majority in the Senate is expected to approve Pruitt for the job.
Trump administration officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Myron Ebell, former head of Trump's transition team at the EPA, said he expects the new administration to cut about $1 billion from the agency's $8 billion budget and significantly reduce its workforce of about 15,000 employees.
The Chesapeake cleanup plan sets a "diet" of pollution that allows water quality to improve, giving targets for reducing pollutants like farm runoff, wastewater treatment plant effluent and urban stormwater runoff.
Under the blueprint, each of the six states in the bay watershed, plus the District of Columbia, has goals for pollution reductions, but only the EPA has the authority to enforce all of them.
The American Farm Bureau Federation sued the EPA over the plan soon after it was enacted. Pruitt was among a group of state attorneys general that filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of the lawsuit.
The Supreme Court declined to hear the case last year, in effect upholding a lower court ruling that affirmed the EPA's power to enact the program.
When Cardin asked Pruitt how he would defend a hypothetical future legal challenge to the bay plan, Pruitt did not say he necessarily would — he said he would seek the input of state officials and "other interested stakeholders."
Pruitt also wrote that water quality improvements observed in recent years "are likely the result of measures" that predate the 2010 plan.
"These measures, as well as state plans to require treatment plants upgrades that also pre-date the effective date of the [plan], will continue to improve water quality," he wrote.
Scientists and environmentalists said that while progress to clean up the bay began well before the blueprint was established, any indication of waning federal support for the plan would be alarming.
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"Both efforts of the past and the current efforts are very, very important," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a collaboration between Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Beth McGee, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said while it's true that decades of efforts are responsible for recent improvements in bay health, the cleanup blueprint has had some "immediate" effects.
"Some practices don't have lag time," McGee said. "We've been seeing accelerated improvement since ."