Former EPA Head Says Pruitt's Resignation Is 'Way Overdue'

Jul 5, 2018
Originally published on July 23, 2018 2:02 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Joining us now for more is former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman. She served in the role under President George W. Bush. Welcome.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Ailsa, glad to be with you.

CHANG: So what did you make of this resignation announcement? Were you surprised, or had you seen this coming for months?

WHITMAN: Oh, this is way overdue, I mean, both for the agency and for the administration. He's been an embarrassment. Never known an administrator or anyone in a position of a cabinet officer to have these many investigations, ethical issues. He's been ethically tone-deaf for a long time, so I'm not surprised. I'm just surprised it took this long.

CHANG: During his time at the EPA, you know, he's been, as you say, at the center of many controversies. But when you look back on the policies during his tenure, were there - was there any particular policy that concerned you the most?

WHITMAN: Well, it's the overall attitude, and I'm afraid that's not going to change because that's really determined by the president. I mean, as a cabinet member, you serve at his pleasure. You do what he wants done. And I'm not sure that I think the assistant administrator is going to be any more kind to the environment.

I've been worried - first of all, the ethical issues and that whole cloud and that the secrecy that surrounded Scott Pruitt with the way he handled things had a very bad atmosphere in the agency - but the denigration of science, the unwillingness to consider any science that didn't adhere to policy that they wanted, the willingness to wholeheartedly accept whatever industry said. Industry should be heard, but they can't be the only voice at the table. And that I'm afraid - I hope it will change with the acting administrator, Wheeler, but I - you know, there are no guarantees.

CHANG: Andrew Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, so it's not much in terms of...

WHITMAN: Right.

CHANG: ...Taking a different tack from industry having a say, I suppose.

WHITMAN: No, I'm afraid not. And that's not good for any of us. It's not good for our health. It's not good for the future.

CHANG: You have said that the EPA is an agency where politics should never come into play. Why is that?

WHITMAN: Well, I mean, you say it should never. It always does to a degree. But...

CHANG: I was going to ask you if it's possible for politics to not come into play at some point.

WHITMAN: Well, it's hard to say never, but it shouldn't be the dominant force because what you're about is basing decisions on scientific analysis of what's safe for human consumption, what is going to keep us healthy, what's going to protect our environment so that we can live the quality of life we want. And that's based on science.

Now, of course you can argue with the scientists. And everybody does, as we've seen a lot of that recently. So you have to go with the preponderance. And you'll say, OK, that's - then politics get into it - how far you're willing to go. Everybody complained about the Obama administration over-utilizing the tools of executive actions. They'd argue that it's 'cause they couldn't get anything through Congress. But then you're getting politics. So politics will be there at least in the overall approach to environment, but the basic decisions as to how much lead a child can ingest before it has brain damage is pretty basic. And that's scientific. That's not political.

CHANG: But given some of the vociferous criticisms of the EPA's direction during the Obama administration, is there any particular direction under Scott Pruitt that you saw the EPA take that you did agree with, that you would applaud?

WHITMAN: Well, I certainly agree that regulation should be revisited. But there wasn't much in actual policy that I saw that I could support wholeheartedly. The idea of looking - rethinking regulation, yes, that's not to me a problem if it's done right.

CHANG: Christine Todd Whitman is the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Thank you very much for joining us.

WHITMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.