Scott Pruitt serves as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Photo: Mitchell Resnick / White House
Environment | National | Politics

Quapaw Tribe goes to bat for Trump's embattled environmental official

With his job in jeopardy, the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency can count on at least one defender in Indian Country.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has come under fire for an unusual housing arrangement in the nation's capital and other ethical lapses. But in his home state of Oklahoma, the Quapaw Tribe is crediting him for helping clean up the worst Superfund site in America.

“It’s such a dramatic change that we could not have scripted it any better,” Chairman John Berrey said on Monday of the remediation efforts at Tar Creek.

The tribe and its citizens have borne the brunt of decades of mining pollution in the northeastern part of the state. Tens of millions of tons of dangerous waste, known as chat, were dumped on their lands, causing environmental and health hazards and limiting economic development opportunities there.

In hopes of addressing the situation, the EPA placed Tar Creek on the Superfund list in 1983. The designation in theory would lead to an influx of federal and other funds to clear away the chat and make the tribe's homelands more inhabitable.

Tar Creek Superfund Site

BEFORE: Mine waste known as chat sits on Quapaw territory in northeastern Oklahoma. Photo courtesy Quapaw Tribe
AFTER: Tribal cleanup efforts at the same site show dramatic change. Photo courtesy Quapaw Tribe

But progress has been slow moving through Republican and Democratic eras. The tribe at one point even donated monitoring equipment to the federal government in order to help detect lead, zinc and other metals in the waters at Tar Creek.

A cooperative agreement signed in 2012, during the Obama administration, put the tribe in greater control of cleanup efforts. Even then, Berrey said funding amounts were minimal -- $5 million for a series of projects that began in 2014, for example.

But after Pruitt, who was well acquainted with Tar Creek when he served as attorney general of Oklahoma, joined the Trump administration, efforts accelerated, according to Berrey. In the past year alone, he said the EPA has provided $25 million.

"After decades wrought with administrative delays, lack of funding and neglect, we are now experiencing an efficient and well managed clean up of the Tar Creek Superfund site," the chairman said.

The praise comes as Pruitt attempts to deflect scrutiny of his activities in Washington, D.C. The Cabinet official has acknowledged paying just $50 a night for a bedroom in a house owned by a lobbyist couple, an arrangement that began shortly after he was sworn in at the EPA and ran for several months in 2017, POLITICO reported.

But ethics officials at EPA didn't get around to looking a Pruitt's lease until much more recently, after news of it broke in the media. An internal document obtained by the Campaign Legal Center showed that the $50 a day was compared to single bedrooms available in the Capitol Hill neighborhood on Airbnb, the popular short-term lodging site.

The analysis, though, did not appear to take into account taxes, cleaning fees and rises in rates that are common during busy seasons in the neighborhood, which is popular due to its proximity to the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous transit options. According to exhibits attached to the memo, the ethics official didn't fully price out the cost of a one-night stay at any of the properties found on the site.

For example, a room listed at $57 a night for a Monday later this month would come to a total of $154 once occupancy taxes and other fees are added.

Remediation efforts at Tar Creek in northeastern Oklahoma have taken place under a cooperative agreement between the Quapaw Tribe and the Environmental Protection Agency. Photo courtesy Quapaw Tribe

The ethics official also looked at apartments for rent in the neighborhood and found them comparable to Pruitt's rate. But the examples provided were for complete units -- his lease was for a single room and he was not entitled to have control over other areas of the place where he was staying.

"I’m giving this EPA press release a rating of Total Baloney," Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics who left his job after questioning the Trump administration's openness, wrote in a post on Twitter.

"You cannot get a whole place to yourself in that prime location for $1,500 a month, nor will you find anyone willing to hold the place open for you all month and charge you only for the nights you use it," wrote Shaub, who subsequently obtained the second document for the Campaign Legal Center, the one which gave a more complete explanation of the review of Pruitt's lease.

The Office of Government Ethics, which is under the control of an "acting" director, has since sent a letter to the EPA, raising questions about the housing arrangement and about some of Pruitt's other actions. Last week, The New York Times reported on salary raises for allies, demotions for those deemed to be obstacles and high costs of his security arrangements, which are unprecedented in EPA's history.

Amid the scrutiny, President Donald Trump last Thursday said he will "look at" the issue.

"You know, I hear different versions of it," he told reporters aboard Air Force One as he said Pruitt was doing an "absolutely fantastic job." "But I’ll make that determination."

Then on Friday, Trump again said Pruitt was "doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege" in the media.

Pruitt was confirmed as Administrator of the EPA amid questions about his record on Indian issues. As attorney general in Oklahoma, he fought tribes on jurisdiction, immunity and taxation fronts, even attempting to impose his views in disputes that went beyond the state's borders.

A brief he submitted in Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which was one of the most closely-watched U.S. Supreme Court cases in recent history, argued that tribes lack authority over non-Indians.

As head of the EPA, he is now in charge of similar questions of jurisdiction for tribes seeking to regulate air and water quality on their homelands across the nation. He's already shown that he is unwilling to take a stand -- last summer, he abandoned two tribes as they sought to protect the boundaries of their reservation in Wyoming.

"To me, Scott Pruitt is the antithesis of what we need in the EPA," Casey Camp-Horinek, a citizen of the Ponca Tribe, said in a video produced by the Environmental Working Group, which gave the Cabinet official an failing grade in response to his first year in office.

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