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Scott Pruitt Is Forced to Confront Reality

Republicans claim the EPA chief is a "victim" of political attacks—an insult to actual victims of Pruitt's policies.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty

Thursday morning’s hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was supposed to be all about Scott Pruitt, the embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency. But it also turned out to be about Drew Wynne.

Wynne was 31 years old when he died last October, after using paint stripper containing the toxic chemical methylene chloride. The EPA proposed a ban on methylene chloride shortly before President Barack Obama left office last year. In December, however, Pruitt’s EPA indefinitely delayed that ban.

“Mr. Pruitt, your deregulatory agenda cost lives,” New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone said, after recounting Wynne’s story. Last month, Wynne’s family called Pruitt’s decision “a terrible mistake” and urged him to finalize the ban. Pallone also entered into the record a letter he received from the family of Joshua Atkins, a 31-year-old who died in February after using a common paint stripper on his bike. “You have the power to finalize the ban on methylene chloride now and prevent more deaths, but you haven’t done it,” Pallone said. “Do you have anything to say to these families?”

Pruitt was well-prepared to defend himself over the many ethics scandals surrounding him. He was less prepared for this line of questioning. He said his staff was “reviewing” the proposed ban, adding that “there has been no decision at this time.”

Pallone scoffed. “Obviously, you have nothing to say to these families.”

Drew Wynne, who died last year after accidentally inhaling paint stripper containing methylene chloride, which is sold at home-improvement stores across the country.
Photo courtesy the Environmental Defense Fund

This was the first of many interrogations of Pruitt on Thursday by House Democrats. In two separate hearings, they criticized him for excessive spending on first-class flights and a 20-person security team, as well as his conflicts of interest. Pruitt admitted to one lie, but otherwise deflected blame or professed ignorance. But Democrats’ emphasis on the human toll of Pruitt’s policies was more devastating. As Republican lawmakers repeatedly defended Pruitt by portraying him as a “victim”—of “Washington politics,” of “McCarthyism,” of “political bloodsport”—Democrats responded with the names of real victims.

For instance: the hundreds of households in Chicago with dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois noted that Pruitt twice delayed a rule to reduce lead in drinking water; twice delayed another rule on lead paint in commercial buildings; and recently proposed a rule to limit the number of human health studies that can be used at the EPA. “These important studies are critical in identifying potential risks to public health, including those related to lead contamination,” Rush said.

The Democrats also highlighted victims of climate change, such as Bill Taylor, a fisherman who owns Seattle-based Taylor Shellfish. Congressman Derek Kilmer of Washington said Taylor’s business “is constantly threatened by algal blooms and acidic waters.” He also mentioned Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault Indian Nation, who is planning to relocate her entire village due to sea-level rise and intensified storms. Kilmer then cited Pruitt’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan, and Pruitt’s comments from February in which he said climate change could “help humans flourish.”

“What do you say to the coastal communities that I represent that face an existential threat with ocean acidification?” Kilmer asked. “Do you really think they’re going to flourish because of this?”

In the lead-up to Thursday’s hearings, Pruitt had his EPA staff create a 23-page document to prepare him for questions about his ethics scandals. But he did not have a direct answer to Kilmer’s question, nor the next question from New York Congresswoman Nita Lowtey.

When EPA proposes a rule,” she asked, “what value does it place on human life?”

Pruitt didn’t respond to the question, but the answer was clear.