Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Can This Republican Restore Integrity to Scott Pruitt’s EPA?

Pete Lopez is a Trump political appointee, and he's responsible for Puerto Rico’s environmental cleanup.  But he's actually qualified for the job.

Pete Lopez (Credit: NYAssembly.gov) Click to Enlarge.
President Donald Trump has turned the Environmental Protection Agency into a department at war with its core mission.  His pick to run the agency, Scott Pruitt, relentlessly sued the EPA as Oklahoma’s attorney general, has close ties with polluting companies, and denies climate science.  Pruitt’s deputy is a former coal lobbyist.  An official overseeing chemical safety was a chemical industry lobbyist; the person nominated to be her boss has been a consultant to chemical companies for many years.  The person nominated to enforce anti-pollution laws was an attorney and lobbyist who defended polluters.  The new Region 4 administrator was a lobbyist for business interests that fight against pollution regulations.  The list goes on and on.

So it was slightly surprising when, earlier this month, the EPA announced that Pete Lopez, a Republican and former member of the New York State Assembly, would be the next administrator of Region 2, which covers New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight tribal nations.  Unlike nearly all of Trump and Pruitt’s political appointees, Lopez has no personal interests in the success of fossil fuels or chemicals, according to his financial disclosures.  He minored in environmental studies in college.  He consistently gets around a 70 out of 100 on the New York State Environmental Scorecard, which tracks lawmakers’ voting records.  He believes in environmental justice, the concept that minorities are disproportionately affected by pollution.  And he led a coalition to implement flood prevention measures after his district was hammered by Hurricane Irene in 2011.

This is not to say that Lopez is an environmentalist.  He hasn’t fully accepted that humans are the main drivers of climate change; he gives a tired excuse, “I’m not a scientist.”  The Sierra Club notes that he has “a record of being pro-fracking and voted against major climate and electric vehicles bills,” but the group admitted that Pruitt could have chosen someone much worse.  “For a Republican, he is sort of moderate, and he is better than most,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said.

Lopez’s appointment couldn’t have come at a more urgent time.  He took office on Oct 1, just two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, creating environmental crises—contaminated drinking water, overflowing garbage, untreated sewage flowing into rivers.  Cleaning up that colossal mess is his first mission.  “I feel really bad that he just started and he’s hit with this immediately,” said Lopez’s predecessor, Judith Enck.  “I had three years under my belt before Hurricane Sandy hit.  I knew everyone at the agency, and I was trained on emergency response.  They haven’t had time to train him.”

Enck, coincidentally, supervised Lopez while he was a college-age intern at an environmental non-profit in Albany.  She believes he’s smart and sufficiently qualified to deal with Puerto Rico’s immense environmental damages—but only if the Trump administration doesn’t get in the way.  “Pete’s biggest challenge should be the environmental problems themselves,” she said.  “But I think it will end up being the dramatic anti-environmental agenda of Administrator Pruitt.”

Indeed, Lopez’s success or failure will depend on this question:  Is there room among EPA’s politicized leadership for someone who truly cares about the environment and public health?

Read more at Can This Republican Restore Integrity to Scott Pruitt’s EPA?

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