State Politics

In Boise, EPA head Scott Pruitt talks pollution program, ducks ethics questions

EPA’s Scott Pruitt, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter decline questions from the press

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Gov. Butch Otter leave a press conference without addressing questions from media June 5, 2018, after signing an agreement to turn oversight of a key pollution program over to Idaho officials.
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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Gov. Butch Otter leave a press conference without addressing questions from media June 5, 2018, after signing an agreement to turn oversight of a key pollution program over to Idaho officials.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, signed an agreement in Boise on Tuesday giving Idaho oversight of an important water pollution discharge program.

Idaho is one of four states in which the federal government manages permits for releasing pollution into waterways. Who needs these permits? They go to city wastewater plants, cheese factories, highway departments and mines, among others.

As of July 1, that oversight will change. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality will be in charge of those permits.

In brief remarks at the Idaho Capitol, Pruitt and Gov. Butch Otter spoke about the agreement.

"This day is a culmination of a tremendous amount of work and partnership between the state of Idaho and U.S. EPA," Pruitt said. "... This is something that we should celebrate. This is something that we should recognize, this is how it should work."

Then, Pruitt and Otter quickly departed, refusing to take media questions on a day of yet more claims about Pruitt's ethics and spending. They left DEQ Director John Tippets, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill to speak to reporters.

The Boise visit came as the beleaguered EPA chief faces about one dozen investigations into his spending, along with other ethics issues. Just Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Pruitt had an EPA employee reach out to Chik-fil-A's president in hopes of finding Pruitt's wife a job.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt meets with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter June 5, 2018, and signs a an agreement allowing Idaho to issue and enforce pollution discharge permits for rivers and lakes.

What's changing in Idaho?

When Congress passed acts governing clean air and water, it authorized states to assume administration and enforcement responsibility for the federal environmental regulations.

Idaho agreed to manage air pollution, but not the water. This meant Idaho took responsibility for air quality permitting and enforcement, while the EPA took on that role for water quality.

State officials began working some years ago to change that. The Idaho Legislature in 2014 directed the DEQ to seek EPA authorization for a state-operated permitting program.

The Idaho Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Program will require approximately 29 new employees in DEQ's state and regional offices — most of whom have already been hired — and an annual budget of $3 million. Idaho taxpayers will foot $2 million of the cost, with larger industries, cities and other large-scale permittees covering $1 million though permit fees.

The EPA will retain oversight of Idaho's program, including federal enforcement authority. And the state still must enforce the same standards the EPA had to meet.

"We are required by law to be at least as stringent in our new rules and regulations as the federal government is," said Tippets, the DEQ director.

Conversely, DEQ can't suddenly put more strict laws in place. State law requires the Legislature to approve anything more stringent than the federal rules, Tippet said.

"We are always looking for that sweet spot where we are as stringent as the federal requirements but not more stringent," he said.

So what will be different?

"The difference is that we think in Idaho we can do a better job of meeting the needs of Idahoans," Tippets said, "and to help them understand why and how we can protect our natural resources."

Tippets outlined a four-year phase-in plan to transfer permittees from the federal system to the Idaho program. This year, the agency will focus on municipalities. Then will come industrial facilities, stormwater permits and other categories.

Protesters meet Pruitt

A group of about 30 protesters lined the hallway outside of Otter's Capitol office shortly before the meeting with Pruitt. They chanted: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Pruitt has got to go."

Among other things, the EPA chief is also under investigation for renting a Capitol Hill condominium linked to an energy lobbyist.

The Federal Elections Commission is investigating Idaho U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo's campaign and PACs for not reporting using that same condo at least 80 times for campaign fundraisers.

Two Iowa Republicans — Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst — criticized Pruitt's dealings Tuesday. The pair were also upset about proposed changes to U.S. biofuels policy.

"He is about as swampy as you get here in Washington, D.C., and if the president wants to drain the swamp, he needs to take a look at his own Cabinet," Ernst said, according to Bloomberg.

A small group of protesters gathered outside Gov. Butch Otter's office at the Idaho Capitol June 5, 2018, ahead of a meeting involving EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

In Otter's office, Pruitt and the governor traded jokes and Pruitt talked about making his first trip to Idaho.

The former Oklahoma politician described "fond memories" about Boise State's 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory over the Sooners — "a little bowl game that took place that Boise State taught us all how to play football. At least for a game or two."

Pruitt’s Boise visit was a follow-up to Otter’s visit to EPA headquarters in March.

"It was one of the very first meetings I had with a governor," Pruitt said. "We talked about this very issue."

"This is a big day for Idaho," Otter said. "We have been working on this for 20 years. It wasn’t until we took the bull by the horns in 2015 when the Legislature passed the enabling legislation.

“It is good to have Idahoans making decisions about Idaho issues.”

Pruitt earlier Tuesday toured the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

After the signing ceremony, he, Otter, and nearly 30 local business and community leaders held a private roundtable discussion on various environmental challenges facing Idaho.

Idaho Conservation League Director Rick Johnson was one of the people invited to the roundtable. Johnson said it was the first time he met Pruitt.

“He is a skilled ambassador of the Trump administration,” Johnson said. “Too many have become distracted by the wrong news stories and we should be paying attention to what is really happening with environmental policy.”

Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling also participated. She said she told Pruitt about Nampa’s wastewater issues and its solutions. “I thought it was excellent,” she said. “I appreciated what I heard regarding their interest in working at the local and state level.”

Kling said Nampa will be one of the first municipalities to go through the new state permitting system. “We want to set the stage for a great partnership as we move forward with both agencies," she said.

Kling said Pruitt “also spoke to environmental stewardship. I appreciate that comment. Because stewardship is very import to me and I feel like, a public official, we are charged to be good stewards of our assets in all respects, and water being one of those.”

Johnson and Kling were two of seven people who made brief presentations to Pruitt. Three of the other speakers were members of Idaho tribes.

Kling said the tribal members focused on the importance of protecting natural resources.

“Representatives of sovereign nations, who were here before we were, have a different approach to talking about the environment," Johnson said. "I think we all benefit from taking a pause and listening to them.”

Cynthia Sewell is Idaho Statesman's government and investigative reporter. Contact her at (208) 377-6428, or @CynthiaSewell on Twitter.