Pruitt flies under the radar to drop in on Franklin County

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

In any other administration, a visit to Franklin County by a presidential cabinet head would be big news, heralded in advance by a press release to the local media. Not so with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s recent visit on Feb. 14 to tour FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage hydroelectric station and FirstLight’s Turners Falls and Cabot Station hydro plants.

Pruitt arrived unannounced, accompanied by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Neil Chatterjee. It is no coincidence that these facilities are undergoing review by FERC for relicensing.

The visit could have been an opportunity for Pruitt and Chatterjee to meet with other stakeholders besides the owners, such as the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, the Connecticut River Conservancy and officials from towns like Montague, Gill, Erving and Northfield, affected by FirstLight’s facilities. In fact, the day before the visit, Kimberly Noake MacPhee, a resource planner for FRCOG, Andrea Donlon of the CRC, and Northfield Selectboard member Julia Blyth all met with FirstLight officials to discuss the relicensing, with no hint of the next day’s visit. Instead, the EPA issued a press release after the fact.

“We were all stunned,” said MacPhee. “It’s too bad that those two ‘big fish’ visited and we didn’t know. It would have been nice to discuss stakeholder concerns.”

Unfortunately, secrecy has been a pattern for Pruitt. Since President Trump took office, the EPA has experienced a surge in open records lawsuits, according to Politico, an American political journalism company based in Arlington, Va. The suits have come in response to Pruitt’s unwillingness to release information, compelling organizations to resort to paths offered by the Freedom of Information Act to learn about the administrator’s activities and travels.

On a personal level, Pruitt seems disinclined to meet with the general public. He has explained traveling first class as a personal safety measure. It is likely that he is averse to unscripted interactions that he cannot control. For whatever reason, Pruitt’s staff does not release his schedule ahead of time. For example, according to Politico, Pruitt recently appeared unannounced in Florida to meet with the state Farm Bureau and Chamber of Commerce, then spoke at an event hosted by the conservative Federalist Society. He made a surprise trip to New Hampshire, where he met privately with Gov. Chris Sununu. And now he has dropped in on Franklin County with no advance notice to the public.

This begs the question, what is the connection between Pruitt’s visit and the upcoming relicensing of FirstLight’s hydroelectric plants? If the purpose was to gather information that will inform the relicensing application, Pruitt missed out on the chance to gain input from a variety of stakeholders.

After the visit, the EPA put out a press release in which Pruitt is quoted saying, “EPA will continue to work with our partners in the states to make responsible use of our country’s tremendous natural resources.”

The owners of FirstLight are not the only partners Pruitt needs to seek out. The affected towns, their governing bodies and the media are equal partners in the relicensing process of a public resource, and Pruitt’s door should open to us all.