Pruitt’s Not Talking ‘Public Health': Is It Dangerous or Rhetoric?

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By Rachel Leven

Scott Pruitt hasn’t said the words “public health” and has rarely said the word “health” in his first month of public speeches as EPA administrator, a review by Bloomberg BNA shows.

While a free-market advocate said the rhetoric isn’t a reliable metric showing Pruitt’s commitment to public health, an Obama-era EPA communications director said significant work goes into messaging for these kinds of events and that the missing words are a fair indicator of the agency’s direction.

“Words matter,” Liz Purchia, who served as communications director under then-EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, told Bloomberg BNA. She said that his actions so far match his rhetoric and “the words that he uses signal to all Americans where he’s going to prioritize his time and the issues he wants to focus on.”

Exposure to different kinds of environmental pollution can lead to health risks from asthma to cancer. The EPA’s mission is to “protect human health and the environment,” in part to prevent those negative health impacts.

While it is early in Pruitt’s service, his focus on regulations over health is one metric that may indicate a shift in the agency’s approach.

The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t respond to multiple messages requesting comment.

The Speeches

Pruitt, who sued the EPA 14 times as Oklahoma attorney general, has made at least eight scheduled appearances since Feb. 17 as the agency administrator. He spoke to EPA employees, the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference, Conservative Political Action Conference, Farm Bureau Advocacy Conference, CERAWeek, National Review Institute’s Idea Summit and the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Winter Leadership Meeting.

Bloomberg BNA analyzed seven of those speeches. He never said the words “public health” and only overtly said the word “health” three times over the course of these appearances. In contrast, McCarthy said the term “public health” at least 16 times and, separately, “health” 13 times, according to a review of seven speeches from 2016 on the EPA website.

The EPA and the National Association of Manufacturers declined to make public audio from a March appearance by Pruitt to the association’s board. The meeting was closed to the press.

The new administrator emphasized a few common themes in the speeches: We can disagree in a civil manner and still work together. We will follow the appropriate processes, including not using “sue-and-settle” consent decrees. We will provide regulatory certainty. We will be partners to states, not punishers.

“We’ve lived under this narrative for the last several years that if you’re pro-energy, you’re anti-environment, and if you’re pro-environment, you’re anti-energy. We can do better than that,” Pruitt said at the cities conference this month. “We have always been able to strike the balance between being a good steward of our natural resources, but also growing our jobs and our economy, and doing so in a responsible way.”

McCarthy’s speeches that Bloomberg BNA reviewed generally focused more on health outcomes and the impacts of environmental pollution on individuals, even as she emphasized that addressing pollution problems like climate change could be a boon for jobs and the economy.

“We all can’t wait for anything to get the work done that we need to do to keep our kids’ future secure, and to continue to make progress on public health, because after all, EPA is a public health agency,” McCarthy said in May at Vermont Law School’s commencement. “That is what we do for a living.”

What Does It Show?

Will Yeatman, senior fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg BNA that it is somewhat disingenuous to measure Pruitt’s public efforts by searching for that term in his speeches.

Pruitt did discuss improving environmental outcomes and benefiting communities at various events. These comments show Pruitt is focusing on “public health by another name,” Yeatman said.

Yeatman said that the rhetoric in the speeches discussing a refocusing of the agency to its authority allocated by congressional is encouraging.

“I hope we get some management in place and we get that,” Yeatman said. “That would be great.”

Purchia disagreed. It would be up to the administrator, but generally there are a large number of personnel involved in writing the agency head’s speeches “to make sure there’s a coherent and unified message,” she said.

“They don’t just go out there and say whatever comes to mind,” said Purchia, who is now a partner at Riff City Strategies.

What we know of Pruitt’s speaking schedule—where he is speaking—is also telling, Purchia said. McCarthy spoke to the same stakeholders, but she also spoke to communities and nurses and environmentalists, Purchia said, adding that it isn’t clear who else Pruitt has spoken to.

Actions and Words

Purchia and Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said Pruitt’s actions so far have aligned with his rhetoric. Benjamin said Pruitt’s “denial of climate change” and rolling back of certain rules are actions that harm human health.

Pruitt has de-emphasized the link between climate change and carbon dioxide, despite the vast majority of science showing that human-caused carbon dioxide emissions are a primary driver of climate change.

But, Benjamin said, Pruitt is still new to the agency. He expressed hope that the administrator would recognize over time “that his most important job is to protect human health through the lens of the environment” and would listen to the agency experts on science and policy.

“He needs to follow the science and the law,” Benjamin said. “If he continues on the path of his actions so far, he is undermining his fundamental authority in the office.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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