EPA administrator shuns green groups, meets with businesses, during SC visit

US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, far left, meets in Orangeburg Counnty with business leaders and farmers about scrapping a wetlands rule that environmentalists say will protect wildlife and water quality.
US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, far left, meets in Orangeburg Counnty with business leaders and farmers about scrapping a wetlands rule that environmentalists say will protect wildlife and water quality.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt met with business people Monday in South Carolina about plans to rollback federal wetlands protections — but the meeting did not include conservationists who oppose the Trump administration’s proposal.

Pruitt’s forum, held at an agribusiness in Orangeburg County, included farmers, homebuilders, energy company representatives and economic development officials, some of whom were critical of an Obama-era rule to protect isolated wetlands and small streams.

Also attending the session were U.S. Sen.. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Republican state Attorney General Alan Wilson; U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R, S.C.; and Republican state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers. They criticized the wetlands rule, which many businesses say unfairly restricts their uses of land.

But representatives of South Carolina’s major conservation groups said they learned of the meeting only after it was over — and they weren’t happy about not being invited to provide comments. Some said Pruitt’s failure to notify them is the latest in a series of efforts to roll back environmental protections by the Trump Administration.

“It’s very concerning that a meeting about a plan that puts our waters and streams at risk would not have the public engaged,’’ said Blan Holman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston. “I would think every lake homeowners’ group in the state, every riverkeeper and every hunting and fishing group in the state would be interested in learning about the EPA’s plan.’’

Calls to the EPA in Washington went unreturned Monday. After the meeting, the EPA issued a news release saying Pruitt’s visit had been part of a “multi-state action tour’’ to discuss scaling back the Obama-era wetlands rule.

Holman said failure to notify green groups and some media outlets appeared to be an “orchestrated effort’’ to influence news coverage.

Groups that said they were not notified before Pruitt’s visit included the Southern Environmental Law Center, American Rivers, the Coastal Conservation League, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, the state Sierra Club, Audubon South Carolina, the S.C. Nature Conservancy, the S.C. Wildlife Federation, the Congaree Riverkeeper organization and Friends of the Edisto. The State newspaper also was not notified of the meeting by the EPA.

Holman’s group has been at the forefront of efforts to keep the Trump Administration from scrapping the rule. He said it “does not seem like an accident’’ that his organization and others were not invited. Conservation Voters director John Tynan said he was sorry a “broader community’’ was not invited.

“It sounds like nobody knew about it except the folks that want to rescind this clean water rule,’’ Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said, noting that EPA officials “clearly have their agenda mapped out about what they want to do.’’

Up for discussion was a rule intended to protect isolated wetlands and seasonal streams from destruction by clarifying years of uncertainty about federal jurisdiction. But Pruitt, as Oklahoma attorney general, led the charge to drop the rule, saying it was confusing and unduly burdened farms and businesses. Wilson, the South Carolina attorney general, joined in the legal fight against the rule.

Wetlands cover a high percentage of South Carolina, where developers say the soggy depressions often hurt their building plans. The Obama-era rule was intended to protect isolated wetlands and small streams not already protected by law. Wetlands provide wildlife habitat and cleanse polluted stormwater, while controlling flooding. Protecting small streams helps protect rivers they flow into.

Robert Kittle, a spokesman for Attorney General Wilson, said the state Forestry Association, farmers and golf course representatives spoke against the rule during the meeting. Pruitt’s visit was to learn how the Obama rule would affect people and gain input, Kittle said.

“It was pretty much anybody: business people, farmers, the Forestry Association, golf courses,’’ he said of those attending. “Obviously they invited certain people, so in that sense it was targeted. But I don’t think they were trying to hide it from anybody or keep anybody away.’’

Rep. Wilson’s office said he attended the meeting at the invitation of the EPA and was not in charge of notifying others. A spokesman for Graham did not return a telephone call Monday afternoon. While Graham and Wilson’s office did not say much about the meeting before hand, they were quick to issue statements afterward critical of the Obama wetlands rule.

Rep. Wilson’s office issued a statement praising Pruitt for visiting South Carolina to hear “from local agriculture and business leaders,’’ including Weathers and Jim Roquemore, whose SuperSod farm hosted Monday’s meeting.

“Today’s visit showed firsthand the real impact overreaching regulations can have on individuals, families, and businesses,’’ Rep. Wilson said. “I appreciate the leadership of President Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for their commitment to scaling back the role of the federal government, promoting limited government and expanded freedom.’’