EPA head’s woes just keep coming

The hits just keep coming for Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who has postponed a trip to Israel this week amid raging controversy over his use of first class travel, despite stark budget and staffing concerns within his agency.

Pruitt was expected to travel to Israel, part of a larger dialogue on water issues intended to run close to a week in length. He was set to depart from the United States on Sunday and stay in a five-star hotel, the King David, in Jerusalem until Thursday. Pruitt was scheduled to stop at both a water recycling plant and a a toxic land remediation site, in addition to meeting with Environment Minister Ze’ev Elkin. The trip was meant “to gain an understanding of Israel’s unique infrastructure and environmental challenges.”

But now, the trip has been put off to a later date.

“We decided to postpone,” said a spokesperson for the EPA, Liz Bowman. “The administrator looks forward to going in the future.”

That postponement makes it the second time Pruitt’s travel was delayed: He was originally intended to visit in January. At that time, officials rescheduled for February — but now it appears that too is off, with the next possible date uncertain at best.

The cancellation comes after a series of scandals and controversies surrounding Pruitt and his agency. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Pruitt had spent nearly $100,000 on first class and business travel last June, days after the White House withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement and all in his official capacity working for the federal government. That amount, obtained through months of receipts by the Environmental Integrity Project under the Freedom of Information Act, includes a $1641.43 first class seat from New York City to Washington, D.C. — a ticket six times more expensive than the seats purchased for two media aides who accompanied Pruitt.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that Pruitt spent more than $107,000 on first class airfare and charted flights during the first six months of his tenure alone. That amount includes a $14,434 ticket for a charted EPA staff domestic flight, in addition to a Morocco trip to promote natural gas exports, something the EPA is not tasked with overseeing.

The EPA has defended Pruitt’s travel, initially arguing that the expenses were approved by federal ethics officials and all a necessary means to communicate “the message about [Pruitt’s] agenda and the president’s agenda” and to “achieve tangible environmental results.” Previous administrations have typically avoided costly travel on taxpayer dime.

Five days after the Post reported on Pruitt’s spending habits, the EPA went a step further, arguing that the official has a “blanket waiver” to fly first class due to security concerns. Henry Barnet, director of the EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, told Politico that Pruitt was approached and berated by angry individuals with frequency when he traveled. Those experiences allegedly prompted a switch in Pruitt’s travel arrangements, leading to the increased expenses.

“He was approached in the airport numerous times, to the point of profanities being yelled at him and so forth,” Barnet said. He cited an example: a man who approached Pruitt in Atlanta’s large airport in October, filming the EPA head.

“[He was yelling] ‘Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment,’ those sort of terms,” Barnet recounted.

The EPA has also placed Pruitt under 24/7 protection, an unusual step. The agency also does not disclose Pruitt’s planned travels ahead of time.

Beyond controversy over security measures and travel, broader criticisms have dogged Pruitt’s agency. Over 700 people have left the EPA since Pruitt took over — the second largest number of EPA exits in almost ten years. Staffing now reflects numbers during the Reagan administration. The current White House has also largely sought to slash funding for the agency, while rolling back environmental protections. The Trump administration’s proposed 2019 fiscal budget would cut more than $2.5 billion from the EPA’s annual allotment — a reduction of around 23 percent. 

A loss in staff and severe budget cuts aren’t all. According to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project released last week, the EPA has closed far fewer anti-polluter enforcement actions than in any other recent administration’s first year in office. That matches up to a December New York Times investigation finding that Pruitt’s EPA has opened far fewer of such cases to begin with.

Last week, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General told House Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) that while the agency would investigate Pruitt’s 2017 travel, the same would not be possible for future travel. The reason? Staffing, time, and budget constraints.