A cache of internal Environmental Protection Agency communications shows that the embattled agency administrator Scott Pruitt isn’t the only one who has been in frequent contact with the industries that the environmental agency is supposed to regulate. Samantha Dravis, who was the EPA’s senior counsel and director of its Office of Policy until she resigned last month, had more than 90 scheduled meetings with representatives of energy and manufacturing companies, trade associations, agricultural interests, car makers, and other industry groups between March of 2017 and January of this year, according to emails that were made public as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club. During that time, those same documents show Dravis having only one scheduled meeting with a representative of an environmental or public health organization.
Some of the regulated groups that sought meetings were the beneficiaries of relaxed EPA regulations. After a court ruled in April 2017 that operators of large animal farming facilities must report how much animal waste they release, several agricultural industry groups met with the EPA. If it had been implemented, the decision would have not only cost the industry millions of dollars, but it also would have put a spotlight on the serious health and environmental impact of waste from factory farms — and big ag was worried. Representatives of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, National Pork Producers Council, United Egg Producers, National Turkey Federation, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Milk Producers Federation, and National Council of Farmer Cooperatives sought a meeting with Dravis to express their concerns. According to the emails, they got the meeting on July 11 at the EPA’s headquarters in Washington.
Within three months, the agricultural organizations’ concerns were addressed. Although the court didn’t change its opinion, the EPA came up with a way for the industry to bypass the requirements it had imposed. In the past, the agency had insisted that animal waste must be reported. And an EPA inspector general’s report from September 2017 emphasized the urgency of documenting how much air pollution was coming out of industrial animal farms. But interim guidelines the EPA released on October 26 showed an about-face. The new policy would exempt the animal farms from reporting requirements. “EPA is working diligently to address undue regulatory burden on American farmers,” said Pruitt at the time. And in final guidance that the agency issued just a few weeks ago, farms were exempted from the reporting requirements.
The EPA describes the Office of Policy as “the primary policy arm of EPA,” which itself has the mission of protecting human health and the environment. People who have worked in the policy office in previous administrations say that the director usually meets with a mix of people who represent environmental and health concerns as well as industry. “What’s not at all typical is the fact that it’s so one-sided,” said George Wyeth, who worked in the EPA policy office from 1998 to 2014 and is currently a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Law School. “This is simply industry trying to get access to decision makers at as high a level as possible.”
The emails released by the Sierra Club do not include descriptions or notes from the meetings. In most cases, the meetings are simply noted as additions to Dravis’s calendar and thus may have ultimately been rescheduled or canceled. Nor do the emails include Dravis’ internal communications with other EPA staff members. And because the EPA is expected to release more documents in response to the lawsuit soon, Dravis may have received or sent additional emails that have not been made public.
During the 10-month period represented in the emails, Dravis had scheduled meetings with hundreds of industry representatives to discuss their wish lists and pet peeves. Some of the meetings involved several companies and associations, such as one in May in which water quality criteria, air permit streamlining, and other issues were on the agenda. Twenty groups, including the Vinyl Institute, the Fertilizer Institute, the American Coatings Association, and the National Oilseed Processors Association were scheduled to attend.
But while the emails show Dravis having scheduled face-to-face meetings with a parade of lobbyists and business people and getting together on several occasions with far-right policy groups — as well as with at least one consumer group, an organization representing public utilities, and a contingent of labor leaders — they contain only one record of a meeting with a representative of an environmental, health, or community organization during the 10-month period. John Walke, director of the Climate and Clean Air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was supposed to meet with Dravis on December 11. Walke told The Intercept that Dravis had reached out to set up the meeting, and then later cancelled it. He said two subsequent meetings were also cancelled.
Though it was not reflected in the released documents, Dravis was also present at a June 2017 meeting that Pruitt attended with 13 health organizations, including the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public health group focused on addressing climate change and eradicating nuclear weapons. The EPA touted its interactions with each of the groups when asked about Pruitt’s close ties to industry, but failed to mention that they were all at the same meeting. Jeff Carter, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility who attended the meeting, recalled it as “very brief” and said that participants were asked not to take notes.
Many of the meetings and calls detailed in Dravis’s emails were to discuss specific policies and existing agreements with the EPA that companies found burdensome. Noble Energy, which according to the emails scheduled a meeting with Dravis for May 5, 2017, wanted to discuss air quality and ozone. The EPA had previously cited Noble for violations of the Clean Air Act and struck an agreement with the company that is in the process of being implemented.
Similarly, Dravis had a call with a representative of the Four Corners Power Plant, according to the records. The plant was facing a deadline for complying with an agreement it reached with the EPA in 2015. Four Corners, a coal-burning facility located on a Navajo reservation near the Arizona-New Mexico border, is one of the biggest polluters in the country, emitting more than 11 million tons of carbon dioxide yearly, contributing to air pollution that is so concentrated it can be seen from outer space. The agreement required the company to “ensure protection of tribal air resources” by installing new technology to reduce its emissions. The last of the improvements were scheduled to be completed by July of this year.
But the company that operates the plant, APS, seems to have had a problem with some of the changes it had been asked to make, according to a note that Megan Berge wrote to Dravis. Berge, an attorney with the firm Baker Botts, wrote that APS, “is concerned with certain monitoring requirements that restrict plant operations.” The two subsequently had a call to discuss the company’s concerns last April, according to the documents.
Reached for comment, Berge wrote that “we meet with regulators from federal, state and local government and agencies on a routine basis on behalf of our clients. As these meetings involve client matters I am not able to speak on their behalf.”
In an email, Suzanne Treviño, communications consultant for APS, wrote that “APS routinely engages with agency personnel on regulatory issues, and in this instance, with no Region 9 Administrator, we contacted EPA Headquarters to discuss monitoring methodology for particulate matter emissions from the Four Corners Power Plant. Discussions were on methodology for monitoring particulate matter emissions, and did not involve changing or relaxing regulatory standards or permitting limits. Four Corners Power Plant continues to maintain compliance with the EPA particulate matter emission standards, Four Corners Federal Implementation Plan, and the plant’s operating permit.”
The citizens who are affected by the pollution from the plant didn’t get the chance to tell Dravis about their concerns, however. Had they done so, Dravis might have heard about ongoing health problems due to poor air quality in the area. San Juan County, New Mexico, where the plant is located, has higher incidences of chronic respiratory diseases than the rest of the state and country.
“The entire region is shrouded in ozone,” said Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, which advocates for the protection of natural resources in the area. Expressing a sense of futility that other health and environmental advocates contacted for this story seemed to share, Eisenfeld said his group didn’t attempt to meet with the EPA. “We didn’t feel there was a point,” said Eisenfeld. “We just feel like EPA and the department of the interior — it’s getting harder and harder to get any real answers or feel like we have a relationship at all.”
Many companies raised concerns to Dravis related to the Clean Water Act. Dravis, who began serving as the EPA’s senior counsel in 2017, despite have graduated from law school just five years earlier, was faced with complex arguments related to the law, from the National Association of Home Builders and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. In May 2017, the American Iron and Steel Institute presented Dravis with a brief that delved into permitting requirements under the law. While it’s not clear how she responded to their arguments, Dravis’s emails reveal that she signed up for a class in December that would provide an overview of the law.
According to her resume, before coming to the EPA, Dravis worked as policy director and general counsel for the Republican Attorneys General Association, which Pruitt had recently chaired. Before that, she was legal counsel for Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a group that has been described as “the Koch brothers’ secret bank.” Dravis also served as the president of the Rule of Law Defense Fund, which Pruitt chaired.
Dravis also held several meetings with industry to discuss the fuel standards known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, including one with a lobbyist representing Arconic, a company that manufactures aluminum parts for the auto industry. Russell Thomasson, an executive vice president at Cassidy and Associates, “worked for Cornyn for a long time until I decided to headed [sic] to the swamp,” Thomasson wrote to Dravis, when requesting the meeting in April 2017. Thomasson confirmed that the meeting took place, but declined to say whether Arconic got what it wanted from it. “We don’t comment on behalf of our clients,” he wrote in an email.
Last month, the EPA announced it would be abandoning the stricter fuel standards that had been put in place by former President Barack Obama.
While President Donald Trump promised to drain the swamp of lobbyists, Dravis seemed to have spent much of her time interacting with people from a number of lobbying firms, including Squire Patton Boggs, Playmakers Strategies, Keller and Heckman, the BGR Group, American Capitol Group, Sonoran Policy Group, Valis Associates, and Gordley Associates.
The emails show breaks from her scheduled meetings in June, when she traveled with Scott Pruitt to Rome, where he visited Vatican City and met with executives from DuPont, Chemours, and 3M. In December, Dravis and several other EPA staffers accompanied Pruitt to Morocco on a trip that was partly arranged by a lobbyist, according to the Washington Post.
Although the most recent emails obtained through the lawsuit are from January, it’s clear that Dravis did meet with the NRDC’s Walke in February. Walke had arranged to meet with other EPA staffers, and when they heard he had been unable to meet with Dravis, they brought her into the meeting. Walke described the encounter, at which they discussed an industry-focused program called Smart Sectors, as cordial.
Today @EPAScottPruitt met with stakeholders participating in #EPASmartSectors to discuss regulatory reform and innovation in the private sector. EPA is committed to working collaboratively inside and outside of the Agency to improve environmental outcomes for the American people. pic.twitter.com/Qycniu6zWZ— U.S. EPA (@EPA) May 9, 2018
But when Walke suggested that they make public the interactions EPA was having with industry through Smart Sectors, the EPA staff demurred. “I said, ‘Why don’t you create a docket to show you have nothing to hide? That way, whenever you receive something from industry, you can just dump it into the docket so everyone can see that everything’s above board,’” Walke said. “They said, ‘We’ll get back to you about that.’”
They didn’t get back to him. And when Walke followed up, he was told that if he wanted that information, he’d have to get it through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In April, in response to allegations from Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the EPA’s inspector general opened an investigation into Dravis’s alleged failure to show up for much of the period between November 2017 and January 2018, while she was being paid as a full-time employee. Dravis, who declined to comment or answer questions on the record for this article, has denied those allegations, as has the EPA, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Dravis is being replaced in the EPA’s top policy job by Brittany Bolen, a former staffer for congressional Republicans, who is 30 years old and graduated from law school five years ago. Dravis is reportedly looking for a government relations job in the private sector.