Self-inflicted scandals aside, Scott Pruitt earned praise from conservatives for his effectiveness at implementing a deregulatory agenda at the EPA. But there was another thing he was really good at: stopping the flow of information out of the agency.
In the early days of Trump’s presidency, agency employees were barred from posting on agency social-media accounts or agency blogs, and weren't allowed to speak to the press. Later, under Pruitt, three EPA scientists were prevented from talking about their research at a conference.
Staff was rattled by a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a top exec at a right-wing PR firm contracted to monitor media for the EPA. The request asked to see emails sent by agency employees who’d been critical of the Trump administration, and sent a message to employees: The agency had its eyes on their communications.
Pruitt also avoided the mainstream press himself, perhaps because when he did talk to reporters, the results were less than positive. In one Instance, Pruitt told CNBC's "Squawk Box" that CO2 isn’t a primary contributor to global warming; in another, he angered White House officials by conducting a confrontational interview with Fox’s Ed Henry. For our part, VICE News made a total of 16 attempts to interview Administrator Pruitt, but the EPA’s communications department denied or ignored all of them.
But with Pruitt’s resignation last week, some agency employees were suddenly eager to discuss the moment they found out about his impending exit — a moment that for many felt surreal because agency management failed to send them a note about his resignation on the day it was announced. Instead, EPA staffers learned the news through social media, text messages, and news notifications.
“I got a text from one of my co-workers and she said, ‘Pruitt resigned.’ I jumped up; I was elated,” one employee who works in EPA’s Northeast Region 1, which is headquartered in Boston, told VICE News on condition of anonymity.
“We have an agency Skype program like an instant message program,” said an EPA employee who works in Region 2, which serves New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “And so I started seeing messages from co-workers pop up and then I heard people kind of whispering, and I thought, 'Something's going on.'”
“A wave of cheers that went on down the cubicles as people heard”
Nicole Cantello, vice president at AFGE Local 704, a union representing agency employees in Region 5, which includes Midwestern states, described the reaction at the Chicago EPA office as “a wave of cheers that went on down the cubicles as people heard.”
Meanwhile, at EPA headquarters in Washington, employees who heard the news began poking their heads out of their offices to catch a glimpse of others’ reactions, according to an employee who works in the agency’s headquarters. “It was like prairie dogs, and everyone’s eyes were wide, and they were grinning,” he said.
For some EPA staffers, working at Pruitt’s EPA was a miserable experience, so much so that employees quit or retired at an unprecedented pace. Marva King was among them. After working at the EPA for more than two decades, she retired from her position as a senior policy adviser for the agency’s Environmental Justice Office in August. When she heard the news of Pruitt’s exit while on vacation, she celebrated over wine and cheese with fellow EPA retiree Cynthia Peurifoy — much to onlookers’ delight.
“We just toasted each other, and we had a great time,” King said. “And this lady, when she found out that we worked for EPA and Pruitt had resigned, she came over and gave us big hugs.”
For some EPA employees who’ve stuck it out at the agency, there was cause for more celebration at the end of the day. “I was walking along and saw a colleague, and asked her where she was going,” the EPA headquarters employee said. “She said she was going to have a drink with friends to celebrate the day.” The New York Times reported that some employees went to Mackey’s Public House, a bar within walking distance of EPA headquarters, to reportedly enjoy an unofficial “Farewell to Scott Pruitt Happy Hour.”
Despite the joy that many EPA employees expressed, they all had concerns regarding Scott Pruitt’s second-in-command, Andrew Wheeler, who will take over the agency as acting administrator. Wheeler has been in government for a long time — taking a short hiatus to work as a coal lobbyist — and EPA employees now have to come to terms with their new boss, as well as his stated willingness to continue Pruitt’s agenda.
“It's not going to be a change. You know, there are all these oil and gas cronies working at the EPA still; Andrew Wheeler is a big coal guy,” the Region 1 employee said. “It may actually be even more efficient without [Pruitt], because these people so far aren't distracted by scandals.”
But at least for a short while, a good number of EPA staffers are doing something they haven’t done in a long time: breathing a sigh of relief.
“The next day, there was an email from the chief of staff saying we have these two new political appointees to serve as special counsel to the new administrator, but there wasn’t anything saying ‘Thanks, Pruitt, see ya.” Nothing,” said the employee who works at EPA headquarters. “It was just an unspoken ‘Good riddance.’”
Cover image: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, May 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)