MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, first came to national prominence by suing the federal government. In fact, he sued the EPA 14 times when he was the attorney general of Oklahoma. Critics in Oklahoma say Pruitt was much less aggressive when it came to going after polluters and environmental crimes. Reporter Joe Wertz from StateImpact Oklahoma teamed up with the NPR podcast Embedded for this story on a major pollution case and how Pruitt handled it.
JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: In eastern Oklahoma, the culture and the economy run on the environment. The eastern part of the state doesn't look like how a lot of people imagine Oklahoma. So instead of sunbaked prairies and dusty tractors, think forests and rivers, kayaks and trout fishing. It's a poor part of the state, and people talk about water like it is oil, a resource that brings fishing and camping, rafting and big tourism bucks.
DENISE DEASON-TOYNE: Good morning.
WERTZ: Joe Wertz.
DEASON-TOYNE: Hi, Joe. Nice to meet you.
WERTZ: How are you? Nice to meet you.
Denise Deason-Toyne is with a group called Save the Illinois River. I meet her at a city called Tahlequah at a place that rents out rafts and cabins.
DEASON-TOYNE: There's a place around here where we can walk down to the river. It's not too far.
WERTZ: We walk out to the banks of the river, and we can see the water is pretty green and murky. Denise says the river was a lot cleaner decades ago.
DEASON-TOYNE: I know enough people that have told stories about, you know, they could stand in the water up to their stomach and look and see their feet clearly. And just imagine how beautiful that would be.
WERTZ: The river is murky because of pollution. One source is wastewater treatment plants up the river in Arkansas. But there's another major source of pollution, too.
DEASON-TOYNE: If you drive up the river and you go cross over into Arkansas and go into some of the back roads, the amount of chicken houses in some locations is just overwhelming. It's like, wow. And each one of those holds, you know, several hundred, if not thousands of birds. So you imagine you've got someone with 2,000 chickens and the amount of chicken litter that they've got.
WERTZ: And when she says chicken litter, she means...
DEASON-TOYNE: Chicken poop, chicken poop, yeah.
WERTZ: There are a lot of chicken farms in the Oklahoma-Arkansas border area. And those farms produce a lot of poultry litter. That's feathers and feed and other junk from the bottom of a chicken house. But the real problem for the river is the poop, which is often disposed of by applying it out onto the land.
DEASON-TOYNE: They just spread it out there on their fields. And I'm told that it could grow grass on a rock. I mean, it is that good as far as a fertilizer.
WERTZ: But applying poultry litter over and over increases the concentration of nutrients like phosphorus, which build up and wash into rivers and lakes. That hurts aquatic life and fuels big algae blooms. That makes the water ugly and slimy and it can be dangerous for people to swim in. It's a really big problem for the river. In 2005, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed a federal lawsuit to try to come up with a solution. He sued poultry companies to get them to stop putting waste in places where it could get into the river.
David Page was the first outside lawyer hired to work on the case, and he threw himself into it.
DAVID PAGE: We spent five years of our life preparing this case, doing the science. I mean, that's pretty much all I did for five years.
WERTZ: The trial didn't start until 2009 - 60 witnesses, 52 days of trial that was start, stop, interjections, objections on a complicated case that hinged on the intersection of law and science. The poultry companies brought out a huge team of their best attorneys, and they said the industry was being unfairly targeted, that they bring a lot of business to the area and that they were doing their best to deal with the chicken waste problem.
PAGE: We fought for every inch. It was like a famous Civil War battle where every square foot of property was fought with blood, tears and sweat.
WERTZ: The trial finally ended in February of 2010. And everyone started to wait for a ruling. A few months later, Scott Pruitt decides he's going to run for the attorney general seat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SCOTT PRUITT: My campaign for attorney general is about first principles. And it's about first principles because I believe that we have forgotten to live according to and under the Constitution. The government is not our master, it's our servant.
WERTZ: And during Pruitt's campaign, he gets donations from the poultry industry, at least $40,000 worth. His opponent took aim at him for this. Pruitt responded and said the criticism was ridiculous. A spokesperson for Tyson Foods at the time said their employees are free to support whoever they like. Pruitt rides the big Tea Party wave and wins the attorney general seat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRUITT: Then we're going to use the courts to push back against Washington, D.C. And I look forward to being your advocate in that regard to make sure we stand for freedom in this great state.
WERTZ: At this point, David Page and the other attorneys are still waiting on a ruling in the poultry case. Page runs into Pruitt at a restaurant in Tulsa shortly after the election.
PAGE: I said, hi, Scott. He says, Dave, hello. And we shook hands. And I said, you know, I can't wait to talk to you about this poultry case we have. And he said, well, you know, Dave, I don't believe in using lawsuits to change public policy.
WERTZ: Within a few years, that's exactly what Scott Pruitt is known for, using lawsuits to force the federal government into a courtroom to change regulation and public policy. But he didn't seem interested in doing it here.
PAGE: So he was saying he didn't really believe, I guess, he was sending the message that he didn't believe in the poultry case. But I guess I learned that he does believe in lawsuits for changing public policy if it's a policy that he subscribes to.
WERTZ: Pruitt later said the poultry case wasn't his case and that he inherited it. Page and other attorneys say Pruitt did not work to move the case forward. They say there are legal techniques and tools that lawyers can use to prod a judge along. Former Attorney General Edmondson said he would have found a way.
DREW EDMONDSON: I would have thought of something, something creative, a motion to wake up or, you know, something of that nature. But I wasn't the attorney general after January 2011.
WERTZ: In fact, even today, eight years after the trial, the judge still has not issued a ruling. I called the judge. He said a decision is coming. Pruitt and the EPA did not respond to multiple interview requests or an emailed list of questions. When Pruitt became Oklahoma's attorney general, he also disbanded the office's environmental protection unit, which was created to bring cases against big polluters. In its place, Pruitt installed a new federalism unit to use the courts to beat back what he called federal overreach.
Kelly Hunter Foster ran the Environmental Protection Unit.
KELLY HUNTER FOSTER: The work can't be done in the same way in the absence of the Environmental Protection Unit. It just can't.
WERTZ: She's now an attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group.
HUNTER FOSTER: It's like taking a leg off a stool kind of. There's an important thing that makes the whole system function that has disappeared.
WERTZ: Over the years, the water in the Illinois River watershed has actually improved. The poultry companies say they have voluntarily removed more than 1 million tons of waste from the watershed. Pruitt and his defenders say this is evidence that Oklahoma and Arkansas and industry can make the environment better without lawsuits and federal regulation. Environmentalists are worried the improvements might not last. New data from Oklahoma's Department of Agriculture show the amount of poultry litter applied in the watershed has more than doubled in the last three years.
For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City.
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