The Trump administration has appointed yet another industry insider as a leading regulator, this time tapping the former lawyer for a plastics and chemicals company to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s task force specializing in contaminated site cleanups.
Steven Cook, who spent 20 years as the in-house corporate counsel for plastics and chemicals giant LyondellBasell Industries, was recently named the head of the EPA’s Superfund Task Force, the Associated Press reported. He’ll now be in charge of how the EPA approaches cleaning up more than thousands of toxic sites—some of which his former employer is responsible for creating.
According to the AP, LyondellBasell Industries and its subsidiaries were listed in EPA records as being “potentially responsible” for more than three dozen Superfund sites—an area of land that has been so contaminated by hazardous waste that is deemed to be a risk to human health and the environment—while Cook was at the company.
During Cook’s time with the company, LyondellBasell settled a number of major charges made against it for environmental violations:
- LyondellBasell’s Houston-based subsidiary, Lyondell Chemical, agreed to a $250 million settlement in 2010 to resolve a mounting number of environmental claims and liabilities made against the company by state governments. The subsidiary set up two trusts to fund the cleanup of waste sites in Pennsylvania, California, and other states.
- Another subsidiary, Equistar Chemicals, agreed to pay out $125 million to cover the cost of pollution controls and cleanup that resulted from the countless air, water, and hazardous waste violations that occurred at seven different petrochemical plants located in Texas, Illinois, Iowa, and Louisiana. Cook was listed as the primary contact for Equistar Chemicals in court filings, per the AP.
Cook—who joined the EPA in February as the deputy assistant administrator for agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management—recused himself from participating in any regulatory matters pertaining to LyondellBasell. But he’s still allowed to make calls on issues affecting his former employer if it would impact at least five other companies.
It’s also worth noting that there have been three ethics waivers handed out to EPA officials (and 37 officials throughout the administration) that allow them to regulate the industries they once worked in. It’s not clear if Cook is one of those officials, or if he will pursue a waiver in his new position.
“All EPA employees receive ethics briefings when they start and continually work with our ethics office regarding any potential conflicts they may encounter while employed here,” an EPA spokesperson told the AP. “Steven Cook is no different.”
The optimistic interpretation here is that Cook will use his experience and knowledge of dealing with industry to reform the EPA and make it operate more effectively and efficiently. (Pause for laughter.) Let’s be real though, that’s not what is going to happen.
Cook is just the latest is a long line of industry insiders to be placed in positions to regulate those very industries. The problem is especially prevalent in the EPA. According to the AP, nearly half of the political appointees hired to the agency under Trump have industry connections, including one-third of which who have worked as lobbyists or lawyers for chemical companies and fossil fuel producers.
Don’t worry though, the approach isn’t just limited to the EPA. Just last month, the Trump administration named a lawyer who represented Equifax, Facebook, and Uber to be the head of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection unit. The president has tapped a lawyer for financial institutions to head up the Securities and Exchange Commission, a pharmaceutical investor to lead the Food and Drug Administration—you get the idea. Any time a new official is named to a regulatory position in this administration, just assume they’ve spent the majority of their careers undermining it.