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EPA Pick Pruitt Stymied Cleanup of Scenic River Fouled by Factory Chicken Farm Waste

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For Immediate Release: 
Saturday, January 14, 2017

WASHINGTON  – After taking $40,000 in campaign contributions from poultry industry interests, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt – President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency – stymied cleanup of a protected river polluted by factory farms’ chicken manure, an EWG investigation found. 

The investigation – confirmed by and cited in a story posted online today by The New York Times – documents that many contributors to Pruitt's 2010 campaign were tied to out-of-state companies that his predecessor, Drew Edmondson, sued for allegedly fouling the state-designated scenic Illinois River with chicken waste. During his six years as the state's chief law enforcement officer, Pruitt did not pursue the lawsuit and disbanded his office's Environmental Protection Unit, which had taken on the poultry industry in the past.

If confirmed by the Senate as EPA administrator, one of the first decisions Pruitt will make is whether to approve plans to combat pollution of the Illinois River and many other waterways. He'll also be in control of the agency charged with protecting all Americans' drinking water.

“President-elect Trump promised an environment with 'crystal clear water,' but under Scott Pruitt's EPA, it might have just a little chicken shit in it," said EWG President Ken Cook. “Maybe Americans won’t mind?”

The Times report said Pruitt’s “antipathy to federal regulation in many ways defined his tenure as Oklahoma’s attorney general.” It said his confirmation would give him “the opportunity to engineer a radical shift” in U.S. environmental policy and enforcement whose impact “would stretch from the nation’s waterways to the planet’s climate.”

Asked in 2015 why he had not pursued Edmondson’s lawsuit against Tyson Foods and other poultry producers, Pruitt told The Oklahoman, the state's largest newspaper: "Regulation through litigation is wrong in my view."

But Pruitt had no such qualms about bringing lawsuits against the same agency he has been nominated to lead. He filed or supported more than a dozen lawsuits aimed at thwarting EPA efforts to protect air and water.

Under Edmondson and previous attorneys general, the Environmental Protection Unit and local officials made significant progress in cleaning up eastern Oklahoma rivers and streams. In 2003, Oklahoma and Arkansas officials reached an agreement to clean up the Illinois River, and the City of Tulsa successfully sued poultry polluters over the fouling of the city's water supply by chicken manure.

Progress was partly the result of mandatory plans to limit the use of poultry manure as fertilizer and to ship it out of the Illinois River watershed. As a result, levels of phosphorous, a poultry waste pollutant that triggers toxic algae blooms, fell by more than 70 percent in some places.

But that progress stopped after Pruitt became attorney general. The year before he was elected, the Environmental Protection Unit’s annual budget was $532,000. After that, it declined steadily, then sharply, until it reached zero in 2014.

“Scott Pruitt’s antipathy for holding polluters accountable in his own state is a bad sign for things to come across America if he's given the reins at the EPA," said Cook. "The EPA's job is to protect public health, not let industry off the hook for polluting our rivers and drinking water." 

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