New EPA head takes action—delaying a mining clean-up rule

In one of his first acts of business, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt directed his new staff to delay a initiative that would require mining companies to prove they can clean up after themselves.

The order would require companies to prove they will be able to clean up the damage caused by routine mining activities. The order is an effort to reduce liability to taxpayers and improve environmental practices at mines.

But mining interests?—?such as coal companies?—?have fiercely objected to the Obama-era proposal, which was developed after environmental groups sued for better enforcement of Superfund regulations. Pruitt on Friday delayed consideration of the order for an additional four months.

“It appears the new EPA administrator is already favoring industry over public interest with this delay,” Earthworks’ Bonnie Gestring told the Associated Press.

Republican Environment and Public Works chair Sen. John Barrasso (WY) requested the delay in a letter to the EPA last month so that states and businesses would have more time to comment. Per court order, the rule must be finalized by December 1.

Mining companies have historically left a mountain of cleanup costs to state and federal governments. Before the days of environmental responsibility, mining companies would just walk away from their destruction. In more recent years, some companies have declared bankruptcy before they get around to cleaning up.

A 2015 report from the Center for Western Priorities found that cleaning up mines in Western states could cost taxpayers up to $21 billion. Under the Superfund law, the report notes, federal and state governments can be held accountable for mining clean up on public lands, where much of U.S. mining takes place.

“The hardrock mining industry, the nation’s largest toxic polluter, has already burdened taxpayers with a $20 [billion]-[$]54 billion cleanup bill and left communities with widespread water pollution,” Gestring said earlier this year.

Gestring’s statements echoes environmentalists’ primary concern about Pruitt, who, in his third tweet as administrator?—?after saying he was honored to lead and looked forward to working with staff—characterized the agency’s stakeholders as “industry, farmers, ranchers, [and] business owners.”

Traditionally, the EPA’s stakeholders have also included the U.S. public and environmental groups.

Pruitt also has deep ties to industry groups. His confirmation was marked by allegations of working on behalf of fossil fuel companies as Oklahoma attorney general, and there is an ongoing court case to force the release of emails between Pruitt’s office and oil and gas companies.

A 2014 New York Times investigation revealed that lawyers for Oklahoma-based Devon Energy had drafted a letter Pruitt sent on state letterhead to the EPA. Earlier this month, a judge ordered the AG’s office to comply with a two-year-old Open Records Act request, and a first tranche of emails was released last week, just days after Pruitt was confirmed.

The emails, requested by the Center for Media and Democracy in January 2015, show a friendly, close relationship, marked by happy hours and exchanged favors, between Pruitt’s office and a number of oil and gas executives.

But the release of a second tranche of emails has been delayed, and Pruitt’s successor has requested a stay of the judge’s order to release them. A hearing on the stay is scheduled for Tuesday in Oklahoma City.

“This maneuver is just more stonewalling by Team Pruitt to prevent the American people from seeing public records of national interest that should have been turned over prior to Pruitt’s confirmation as head of the EPA,” said Lisa Graves, CMD’s executive director. “Pruitt’s office had many months to provide his emails with corporate polluters, but is now complaining they don’t have enough time.”

Pending dismissal of the stay, the next set of emails is set to be released March 3.

This post appeared originally in Think Progress on February 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Samantha Page is a Climate Reporter at @ThinkProgress. Contact her at

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.