What’s Really Wrong at the EPA?

Yesterday there were screams of delight that Scott Pruitt took the advice of Kristen Mink and resigned soon after she confronted him in a restaurant. Will that really make much of a change to the EPA?

Well, taxpayers will not be losing millions of dollars spent by Mr. Pruitt on extravagances. More importantly to me, a number of staff will not have to put up with the arbitrary whims and petty meannesses their boss forced them to endure. 

But Mr. Pruitt is not one of a kind. He is a type of manager I’ve witnessed a various times during my working career. I saw and heard many stories of his likenesses in government agencies, non-profits, and corporate settings. 

In fact almost everyone President Trump has appointed to office has done similar things to what Mr. Pruitt did, only on a lesser scale…

There’s a bigger picture here that points both to corruption in government and to implementation of policies many American people dislike intensely. It will take more than one or two resignations of government heads of agencies to ever stop this juggernaut!

But for the EPA  there is also another factor—that is its history. EPA leadership has been suppressed for decades now.

My experiences with the EPA

I applied for a library job with the EPA in San Francisco once, long ago, somewhere around 1989.

At my interview, an employee made it very clear the EPA had certain limits that couldn’t be exceeded for political reasons. They weren’t shy about stating that – they wanted candidates to be typical civil servants, not change agents. 

We quickly agreed that wasn’t me. 

A short while later I learned another lesson about the EPA that told me how really dysfunctional the EPA was at the turn of this century. 

One Saturday night, after buying a condo in Emeryville, California, my partner and I noticed our cats were licking their lips.

It wasn’t after eating – the cats were making unhappy faces while they did licked lips. Seconds later we too were doing the same thing.

On Monday morning I called upon a California State agency for help. The guy I talked with told me that we had to identify where the odor we smelled was coming from. They could then bring out a “trap” and determine what it was.

So the next Saturday night out we drove…and drove…and drove. We could not find the source of the sour air we were smelling. Flummoxed I called the air quality guy again and he said he couldn’t do anything. 

A month later I was reading the news and my eye hit a headline that said West Oakland residents were picketing an EPA site where toxic chemicals were being burned on weekends. My eyes locked onto that short story.

Oakland was a neighboring city, and West Oakland was right on the path that winds from the San Francisco Bay blew directly over Emeryville.

After reading the symptoms these residents were experiencing (“something that tasted like a bad penny”) , I quickly dialed my contact at the California state agency for air quality. His response?

“Oh darn, I was hoping that wasn’t what you were experiencing. The EPA told us to keep our mouths shut about what they were doing in Oakland.”

“Why did they do that? Why burn toxic things right in the middle of a populated neighborhood?” 

“They said they’d decided it was better to send toxics into the air than dump them into the San Francisco Bay water.

He added, “I didn’t think anything was going to blow your way. I’m sorry. I was wrong.”

A week later after that conversation, we no longer tasted copper pennies on Saturday nights. But there was more to this story.

The brains behind public policies

What the EPA did wasn’t a one-off decision when they chose a poor urban neighborhood like West Oakland to burn toxic chemicals in. 

While in graduate school in Economics I had a research job where I worked with professors on practical problems such as land use zoning, wastewater treatment plant placement, and how much snow ski resorts might need to manufacture given weather patterns. At first my work was interesting, but then…

One day I walked in and saw a professor I worked with bending over a map. The problem that day was where to do urban renewal within a large city in the state so that a University could expand. 

She saw me and explained, “If we put the buildings in in the white neighborhood here they’ll be up in arms and protesting. If we put them in the black neighborhood over there the same thing will happen. So the answer is: we’ll put it in the mixed neighborhood in the middle. They’re poor so they won’t protest.”

I was speechless. The professor’s logic wasn’t wrong, but where was her heart? 

Two years earlier, I had been evicted from my ground-floor apartment in a six story building located in a mixed-income- and-race-neighborhood in Philadelphia. That was when the University of Pennsylvania wanted to expand its campus. 

Someone slipped the notice under my door at 3 am while I was writing poetry. By the time I reached the front door they’d vanished in the night.

Having the only car (an old Saab), and asked to help by my landlady, I’d spent hours driving elderly people from my building around the City to find new places to live. 

As cockroaches from the emptying units above dropped off my ceiling onto the ground floor units. I was the last tenant to leave, after cashing my “generous” five dollar check all tenants got from the City of Brotherly Love for moving expenses.

After many hours of sitting alone by the lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin two years later, depressed by the deaths of two young boys in my family, I pondered whether this was what academia held for my future. Would I become like this professor who picked out poorer people to evict? Or that social worker in Philadelphia who dropped off eviction notices at 3 a.m. and fled?

At the end of summer, I made my decision. I left grad school in the fall of that year and followed my heart to California.


Academia does wonderful things. I’m quite proud when I read the things students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison have done. But these institutions have also long housed a minority intent on misusing their abundant resources in order to foster extreme political change in the U.S.

These institutions are where numerous politicians, federal judges, government officials, researchers at think tanks and professors have been infected with notions of what is right or wrong when it comes to politics.

And that’s no coincidence—colleges and universities along with government officials have long been funded by the same small group of wealthy donors who value money more than people.

If you’re a reader, you might want to check out Dark Money and Democracy in Chains this summer.  But if you’d rather read short articles, then you might want to Google, “Koch donations to Universities.”

We have a long way to go to make the EPA and other agencies work on behalf of all of us.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Raoul A. Martinez on 07.08.18 at 9:03 pm

Hi Nancy, very revealing and informative. I didn’t realize this agency was so corrupt and unfulfilling. Thanks. RAOUL

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