EPA chief declines to discuss climate change in 'midst of the storm'

Hurricane Irma is swiftly approaching the U.S. mainland.

ByABC News
September 8, 2017, 9:21 PM

— -- As another major hurricane approaches the U.S., EPA chief E. Scott Pruitt declined to discuss whether climate change is a factor in the strength of recent storms, instead telling ABC News EPA is focused on securing toxic waste sites, monitoring drinking water and easing gasoline standards.

“Will there be a time and place to perhaps discuss that and debate that? Sure. But not in the midst of the storm, not in the midst of the responses, because there's enough to say grace over right now,” Pruitt told ABC News' Rick Klein and MaryAlice Parks on the "Powerhouse Politics" podcast.

Hurricane Irma will be the second major storm to hit the U.S. in recent weeks. The challenge for EPA right now, Pruitt said, is to deploy major resources once again to a community preparing for a potentially catastrophic storm -- not to assess “cause and effect” in the midst of it, he said.

Pruitt did not discourage conversation on climate change down the line. “Does that mean those questions should not be asked and answered? Absolutely not,” he added.

“Partnering with those cities and towns in the state of Florida, to help serve the citizens -- that’s what our focus is,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt was a regular litigator against EPA before being nominated by President Donald Trump to lead the agency. He told a group of conservatives in February those who want to eliminate the department are "justified" in their beliefs. But on Friday he told ABC News, "We have a very important role," as he itemized his agency's actions to prepare and respond to Hurricane Irma.

In an effort to ease fuel shortage concerns, EPA is temporarily waiving some requirements for the sale, production and blending of gasoline. "You've seen the lines in Florida," Pruitt said. "This is just a supply-and-demand situation.

EPA has also been assessing the vulnerabilities of 80 Superfund sites located across the U.S. from Miami to North Carolina, Pruitt said. These toxic waste sites are being monitored in case of flooding, which could cause contaminants to leak into water supplies and threaten citizens.

Hurricane Harvey left 13 Superfund sites flooded in Texas, raising concern over health hazards. The Superfund sites “are an absolute priority of the agency,” said Pruitt. The job of EPA, Pruitt said, is to hold the owners of these Superfund sites accountable.

“If there's a threat, we notify those citizens and we evacuate them," Pruitt said. He vowed clean water would be a top priority in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. "Whatever we have to do to ensure safe drinking water, that's what we do."

EPA is also still dealing with the situation at the Arkema chemical plant outside of Houston. The explosions at Arkema raised health concerns but also questions over an Obama-era program that was delayed under Pruitt’s leadership. It required facilities that use “extremely hazardous substances” to develop a risk management plan, according to the EPA’s website.

"I've never been against RMPs," said Pruitt. He defended his decision to delay the full implementation of the program based on security concerns. "These chemical plants are terrorist opportunities as well."

Pruitt acknowledged those plans were helpful in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. "During the midst of the Arkema situation, guess what we were able to do? I pulled that RMP ... and we've begun asking questions," said Pruitt. "Did they have redundancy with respect to those trailers that blew up? We don't know yet. There's some concern they didn't. There's some concern that they didn't have a primary power source that refrigerated those trailers to keep those chemicals safe and secure."

Pruitt said the EPA is evaluating its options to hold companies that haven't taken the appropriate steps under their risk management plans to account. "I don't want to get too far ahead of myself," said Pruitt. "But know that those things are being considered."

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