Scott Pruitt, the nation’s top environmental officer, said Wednesday he endorses continued federal funding for a landmark cleanup of the Great Lakes — a departure from the Trump administration’s budget proposal, which would essentially kill the project.

“I understand the investment that’s been made historically,” said Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), during an interview with the Star Tribune. “It’s a continuing need, and we have to see that it’s adequately funded.”

Pruitt’s support follows a vote in the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, which passed legislation this week that would preserve the $300 million annual funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, while cutting the EPA’s overall budget by 6.5 percent.

Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general appointed by President Donald Trump to head the EPA, visited Minnesota as part of a multistate listening tour on many of the controversial issues he inherited at the agency — and some he’s initiated since taking office in February.

Pruitt’s appointment prompted harsh criticism from environmental organizations because while in Oklahoma he routinely battled the EPA, over climate change regulations in particular. Many have accused him of packing his staff with representatives from the industries the agency is charged with regulating and say he’s gutting environmental protections on air quality and climate change.

But he’s been lauded by conservatives and many business executives, who see the EPA as the embodiment of federal overregulation.

In the interview Wednesday, Pruitt elaborated on that philosophy.

“At times regulatory actions at … the federal level can be interpreted as regulatory power for the sake of regulatory power,” he said. He said he’s been struck by what he called “a lack of urgency” at the EPA in solving major pollution problems. For instance, he said, 40 percent of the country lives in regions that do not meet air quality standards.

“Forty percent is just not acceptable,” he said, adding that he wants to establish goals and timelines to bring that number down.

At the same time, Pruitt said he wants the EPA to refocus on balancing the costs and benefits of its rules, and to solicit a wider scope of opinions from across the country on how to do that.

As a case in point, he cited the agency’s rewrite of a bitterly contested rule that defines bodies of water protected by the Clean Water Act and other federal pollution laws. In June he rescinded a proposed new definition, a product of years of negotiation and litigation, that asserted the EPA’s authority to protect thousands of small streams, ditches and wetlands across the country. It was criticized as overreach by conservatives and has been fiercely contested by farm groups, among others.

Environmental groups that supported the rule said that it was based in science and that recognizing such bodies as “Waters of the United States” is critical because they connect to major rivers and lakes that are protected by the Clean Water Act and contribute to drinking water and recreation for millions of people.

Pruitt, however, disagreed.

“Clearly those types of water bodies, if you can even call it that, were not intended to be a water of the U.S.,” Pruitt said. “What’s important is that folks across the country know where [federal] jurisdiction begins and ends.”

Meets with Dayton

Pruitt, who stopped in Utah before Minnesota, said he’s visiting multiple states to learn how different regions of the country view the waters issue and to develop consensus over what the new definition should be. In Minnesota, he met with the AgriGrowth Council, an association that represents the state’s biggest agricultural businesses, and Gov. Mark Dayton.

He said he expects the EPA to complete a first draft of a new version of the “Waters of the United States” rule in the first quarter of 2018.

He also, for the first time, provided some clarity on why the EPA reversed course and now opposes a 10-year-old petition by environmental groups seeking a ban on a widely used insecticide, chlorpyrifos, found to be harmful to children’s brains. Scientists who researched the compound say there’s a strong correlation between neurodevelopmental problems in fetuses and infants and exposure to the insecticide. In denying the petition, EPA officials said the science was unresolved, which outraged environmental and public health groups that had fought for the ban for years.

On Wednesday, Pruitt said the U.S. Department of Agriculture had conflicting data about the health risks of chlorpyrifos and adamantly opposed the proposed ban.

“We can’t sit back and ignore a body of data,” he said.

Pruitt also said he wants to re-establish the relationship between states and the EPA that Congress intended when it first began passing environmental laws, which he described as “making sure states were equal partners.”

“And that makes sense,” he added. “Communities have different challenges.”

After meeting with Pruitt later on Wednesday, Dayton concurred. He said he urged Pruitt to develop clearer standards for the “Waters of the United States” rule and to avoid using the federal agency to “micromanage” Minnesota’s work on environmental projects.

“We have a great deal of confidence … that Minnesota can meet, and in many cases surpass, the environmental standards that Congress has set for the country,” he said. “And we intend to continue to do so.”

 

Staff writer Erin Golden contributed to this story.