The Environmental Scandal in Scott Pruitt’s Backyard
PICHER, Okla. — Tar Creek, Oklahoma, is breathtaking in a terrible way: At one time the world’s deepest source of lead and zinc, the three-town region is now a cratered landscape so poisonous that no one, aside from 10 holdouts, can live there. Mountains of ashlike “chat,” a toxic residue from lead-zinc milling, rise majestically among the remains of homes torn from their foundations. Abandoned pets forage around the ruins. A child’s teddy bear lies sprawled in a ghostly living room. A gorilla statue fronts an empty high school, atop a sign proclaiming “1A Football State Champs, 1984.”
Tar Creek is also part of the environmental legacy of one of the state’s—and nation’s—leading politicians, Senator Jim Inhofe, and his longtime ally, Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who is now head of President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. After the EPA struggled to clean up the area, in 2006, Inhofe endorsed a plan in which a trust overseen by local citizens would use federal dollars to purchase homes and businesses in the toxic region so residents could move elsewhere. Then, when the plan proved so problematic that it spawned more than a half-dozen civil lawsuits and an audit into possible criminal wrongdoing, Pruitt, as the state’s attorney general, invoked an exception to state freedom-of-information laws to keep the audit from being an open public record.
Now, that decision is coming into new light as many Oklahomans clamor for the audit to be released, suggesting that its revelations will prove embarrassing to Inhofe, who played a key role in designing the buyout plan, and cast doubt on Pruitt’s decision not to move forward with charges. Last week, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called the Campaign for Accountability raised the stakes even further, filing suit in Oklahoma courts to force the release of the audit.
“If you take a look at Scott Pruitt’s record, you see a general disregard for transparency,” said Daniel Stevens, the group’s executive director. “I don’t think it’s outside our bounds to say that Pruitt is trying to hide evidence of criminal wrongdoing.”