Controversial EPA chief skips Lexington speech, but groups still protest

The object of a protest by environmental and social justice groups didn’t show up in Lexington on Wednesday, but they let him have it anyway.

Scott Pruitt, the Kentucky native and former Oklahoma attorney general tapped by President Donald Trump to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was scheduled to speak at the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers conference at Lexington Center at 1:30 p.m., but his office notified the organization late Tuesday that he wouldn’t make it.

Groups angry over Trump’s move to pull back from environmental rules set out under his predecessor had organized a protest focused on Pruitt’s visit.

They decided to go forward with it in his absence.

About 175 people gathered in Triangle Park in downtown Lexington at noon, many carrying signs such as “The climate is changing. Why aren’t we?”; “There is no Planet B”; and “Put the EP back in EPA.”

Protesters said Trump and Pruitt are cutting important protections and that will mean dirtier air and water and greater potential for health problems.

“It hurts us all,” said Hank Graddy, who is with the Sierra Club’s Kentucky chapter, called the Cumberland Chapter. “In Kentucky, we don’t want EPA to lead us backwards.”

Trump’s decisions on the environment include killing a rule aimed at keeping coal companies from burying stream sections under waste rock; pulling back from President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would have limited carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants; and proposing to slash EPA funding by 31 percent.

For his part, Pruitt riled environmentalists by deciding to replace half the members of one of his agency’s key scientific review panels and saying it’s not confirmed that human activity — such as burning coal to produce electricity — is a primary driver of climate change.

An international panel that studies the science related to climate change has said that emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, along with other human activities, are “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause” of the Earth’s warming since the mid-20th Century.

Many environmentalists feel Trump and others are disregarding settled science on climate change.

“We need a robust Environmental Protection Agency to protect us from people like Scott Pruitt,” Sellus Wilder, a farmer, filmmaker and former Frankfort commissioner, said at Wednesday’s protest.

Wilder said Trump has been compared to President Richard Nixon, but that that’s not fair to Nixon because at least Nixon recognized the need for the EPA and created the agency.

Many Trump supporters feel that Obama’s environmental rules were overly burdensome and too costly.

Rules affecting coal were a particular issue in Kentucky, with Republican officials and many residents arguing Obama’s measures amounted to a “war on coal” that decimated the industry. The issue helped Trump to an overwhelming win in Kentucky.

Coal jobs and production in the state have plummeted since 2011. Analysts have said environmental rules played a role in that, but that a bigger factor was the very low cost of natural gas, which took power-plant customers from coal. Greater use of renewable energy and other factors also played a role.

To many people at Wednesday’s protest, Obama’s rules were a step in the right direction but still didn’t go far enough.

Graddy told Pruitt in a May 15 letter that the federal government needs to set tougher standards on a number of fronts, including regulating the ash left over from burning coal at power plants as a hazardous waste.

“There’s so much more that we need to be stronger, more protective,” he said at the rally.

The groups represented at the protest were the Sierra Club; Kentuckians for the Commonwealth; the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition; Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light; Indivisible KY; Kentucky Jobs with Justice; the Kentucky Alliance against Racist and Political Oppression; and Rubbertown Emergency Action Task Force.

After several speeches, protesters marched by the Lexington Center, then crossed Main Street and returned to the park, chanting slogans such as “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Scott Pruitt has got to go.”

Asked for a response to the protest aimed at him, Pruitt said through spokesman Jahan Wilcox that he “proudly supports President Trump’s vision to protect our air, water and American jobs.”

State Energy and Environment Secretary Charles Snavely, who filled Pruitt’s slot at the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers conference, spoke favorably of the priorities he said Pruitt had outlined for the agency — improving the nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure and better cleanup of contaminated sites.

Pruitt said he believes “we can have environmental protection at the same time we have a healthy economy,” Snavely said.