EPA administrator Pruitt makes surprise visit to New Hampshire

  • Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a meeting with state and local officials and President Donald Trump about infrastructure in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. AP

  • EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visits the Vatican in June. Pruitt has drawn criticism over his lavish travel habits, and his reported first-class flight on his trip to New Hampshire on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, did little to quiet those critics. Courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

  • Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt mingles before the arrival of President Donald Trump to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Washington. AP file

Monitor staff
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a surprise visit to New Hampshire on Tuesday, meeting with the governor in an unannounced stop that environmental advocates said raises transparency issues and that critics say is another example of a Trump administration official living lavishly on the taxpayer’s dime.

Scott Pruitt, who heads the federal agency, met with Gov. Chris Sununu for an hour in Concord, according to Ben Vihstadt, a spokesman for the governor. The two discussed an array of New Hampshire-specific environmental priorities, including lead poisoning relief, water testing in the Seacoast area and waste removal, Vihstadt said.

The visit came as part of a wider visit to the Granite State, including to the Central Paper company in Manchester and the Mohawk Tannery Superfund site in Nashua, according to a news release from the EPA.

But Pruitt’s visit also came amid growing controversy surrounding the administrator’s travel patterns. A Washington Post article Sunday found that over a year of frequent travel, Pruitt has leaned toward first-class seats and expensive flights, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in overall costs.

Pruitt’s trip to the Granite State appeared to follow the trend. Politico reported Tuesday that the administrator was observed in the first-class section on a flight to Boston earlier that morning.

In addition to the travel expense, some environmental advocates criticized the secrecy of the visit, which was first reported by the Post and was not published in either Pruitt’s or Sununu’s public schedules.

In an interview with WMUR Tuesday, Pruitt said the lack of warning and first-class travel arrangements are set by his agency, and decisions are made based on security concerns.

“There have been instances, unfortunately, as I’ve flown and have spent time, of interaction that’s not been the best,” he said. “So ingress and egress off the plane those are decisions all made by our detail team, by the chief of staff, by the administration. ... They place me on the plane where they think is best from a safety perspective.”

EPA representatives did not answer questions requesting information on the scheduling arrangements. And Vihstadt, speaking for the governor, said that he could not comment on the lack of scheduling, stating “the logistics and details of the administrator’s trip to New Hampshire were handled solely by his staff.”

Vihstadt added that the meeting had not been advertised on the governor’s public schedule because it was not a public event.

Speaking on the meeting itself, Sununu touted the visit as an opportunity to highlight the state’s interests, calling the meeting “very productive.”

“We discussed wide-ranging issues facing New Hampshire, and it is critical that our priorities are heard,” the governor said in a statement.

Still, the secrecy of the visit rankled some activists. Catherine Corkery, director of the New Hampshire chapter of the Sierra Club, lambasted the administrator’s decision to exclude the public, calling it “standard practice by Pruitt” and “a symptom of the transformation of the federal agency” he leads.

The lack of warning also deprived the organization, which advocates for environmental causes, from meeting the EPA head directly, Corkery added.

“If the NH Chapter of the Sierra Club could have met with Pruitt, we would have informed him of our state’s strong legacy of support for clean air protections and the science-based evidence of health impacts from pollution sources beyond our borders,” she said.

Chris Pappas, a Democratic candidate for New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District – which encompasses the environmental Superfund sites observed by Pruitt – released a statement blasting the administrator, accusing him of gutting the EPA and using “taxpayer dollars for self-promotion and elaborate trips.”

But Pruitt called the visit a demonstrative success.

The administrator tweeted photos of a tour taken at the Manchester facility, at which he said he met with forestry officials and discussed the agency’s “efforts to develop a carbon-neutral policy for biomass and clarify federal procurement recommendations for responsibly managed forests.”

He touted the ability to coordinate with the governor on EPA efforts to conduct water tests around the Coakley Landfill Superfund Site in North Hampton. And he championed a dialogue made with the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association and other forestry representatives to remove restrictions on federal forest procurement processes.

“Understanding the importance of the forest products industry to the State of New Hampshire, EPA is focused on clarifying regulations that were encumbering the industry,” Pruitt said in a statement.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)