The Environmental Protection Agency says an internal task force appointed to revamp how the nation's most polluted sites are cleaned up generated no record of its deliberations.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in May announced the creation of a Superfund Task Force that he said would reprioritize and streamline procedures for remediating more than 1,300 sites. Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, appointed a political supporter from his home state with no experience in pollution cleanups to lead the group.
The task force in June issued a nearly three dozen-page report containing 42 detailed recommendations, all of which Pruitt immediately adopted. The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, known as PEER, quickly filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking a long list of documents related to the development of Pruitt's plan.
After EPA didn't immediately release any records, PEER sued in federal court in Washington.
Now, nearly six months after the task force released its report, a lawyer for EPA has written PEER to say that the task force had no agenda for its meetings, kept no minutes and used no reference materials other than Pruitt's memo appointing them.
Further, there were no written standards for choosing the 107 EPA employees the agency says served on the task force.
"Task force members were all volunteers from EPA staff with no selection criteria," Johnny Walker, a Justice Department lawyer representing EPA, wrote to PEER last month. "Meeting minutes were not kept and materials (other than the May 22, 2017 memorandum) were not presented to the Superfund Task Force."
According to EPA's lawyer, the task force also retained no work product other than its final report.
Jeff Ruch, the executive director of PEER, said that seems unlikely.
"Pruitt's plan for cleaning up toxic sites was apparently immaculately conceived, without the usual trappings of human parentage," Ruch said. "It stretches credulity that 107 EPA staff members with no agenda or reference materials somehow wrote an intricate plan in 30 days."
In a statement issued Wednesday after The Associated Press first reported on Walker's response in the FOIA lawsuit, EPA's press office sought to distinguish between the environmental agency and its legal representation.
"The communication at issue was sent by the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney's Office of D.C., as part of an ongoing effort to resolve litigation," said Jahan Wilcox, an EPA spokesman.
The Justice Department routinely represents executive agencies in legal disputes over FOIA requests. In his notice of appearance before the court in the PEER lawsuit, Walker described himself as "counsel for Defendant the United States Environmental Protection Agency."
Wilcox did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the lawyer's representations were inaccurate or if EPA possessed additional records it has yet to disclose.
The recommendations adopted by Pruitt include prioritizing cleanup sites that can be redeveloped for new construction or where nearby residents are under threat from spreading pollution. EPA held no public hearings about the plan.
Pruitt has pledged to make mitigating decades-old pollution EPA's core mission, even as he has moved to block or delay Obama-era regulations aimed at curbing ongoing contamination from coal-fired power plants and fossil-fuel production.
President Donald Trump's proposed 2018 budget seeks to cut the program by 30 percent. Congress has not yet approved a budget for the current fiscal year, which began in October.
The task force was led by Albert "Kell" Kelly, whom Pruitt hired at EPA as a senior adviser at an annual salary of $172,100. Kelly was previously the chairman of Tulsa-based SpiritBank, where he worked as an executive for 34 years.
The Associated Press reported in August that Kelly was barred by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from working for any U.S. financial institution after officials determined he violated laws or regulations, leading to a financial loss for his bank. The FDIC's order didn't detail what Kelly is alleged to have done. Without admitting wrongdoing, he agreed to pay a $125,000 penalty.