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Ricketts and Pruitt

Gov. Pete Ricketts (left) listens as Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, answers a question during a roundtable discussion for a meeting with government officials and industry representatives Oct. 20 at the Governor's Mansion. 

Hours after Scott Pruitt met with state officials in a closed-door meeting at the Governor’s Mansion, the Environmental Protection Agency chief also met privately with railroad executives in Omaha, emails released earlier this month as part of a lawsuit show.

On the agenda of both meetings were a series of regulatory reforms, including the proposed Waters of the United States rule that sought to expand the definitions of which bodies of water would be governed by the Clean Water Act.

While the full scope of Pruitt’s private meetings largely escaped public view, the EPA rolled back the so-called WOTUS rule and finalized the loosening of rules for disposing of creosote-treated railroad ties just months after visiting the Cornhusker state last October.

Preparations for both meetings came to light after the EPA was ordered to release internal emails to the Sierra Club as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit. The emails were later published by the New York Times in early May.

Among the 10,000 records made available for the public are emails from Pruitt’s advance team to the Nebraska State Patrol and a vice president for external affairs at Union Pacific, which has its headquarters in Omaha.

The emails include an itinerary of Pruitt’s time in Nebraska on Oct. 19 and 20, from his travel through Eppley Airfield, complete with arrangements “for a tarmac arrival & departure” to his stay at the Magnolia Hotel in downtown Omaha.

According to the tentative schedule, Pruitt would hold media interviews at the Governor’s Mansion in Lincoln early on Oct. 20. The general press availability was later scrapped, and Pruitt instead appeared on a Lincoln television station alongside Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Pruitt later met with several members of Ricketts’ cabinet at the residence, including the directors of the departments of Environmental Quality, Transportation, Economic Development and Agriculture, as well as Congressman Don Bacon to discuss “rolling back the Obama administration’s WOTUS rule,” an Oct. 23 news release from the governor’s office said.

Leaders from the Nebraska Sierra Club chapter criticized both Pruitt and Ricketts for failing to disclose the meeting publicly, and for restricting who had access to the EPA head in discussing removing a new definition to the Clean Water Act.

“All of this should be public, in our opinion, and there should be public meetings,” said David Corbin, the chapter’s president. “They didn’t even give an opportunity to have the public or anyone else share a different side.”

Other secretaries made visits public

Pruitt's unannounced visit in October marks a divergence from other cabinet members within the Trump administration who have made publicly announced stops in Nebraska.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who toured U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, on her multi-state "Rethink School" tour, both visited Nebraska during a busy week last September.

Mattis' stop in Bellevue came amid a series of North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests. While his visit was announced beforehand, no schedule for the secretary's visit was released to the public, although it was explained that he was reviewing the United States' nuclear defense capabilities. The former Marine Corps general did take questions from reporters during a public portion of the visit.

DeVos' four-school tour in Lincoln and Omaha was publicly announced in advance, including her stops at St. Mary's Catholic School and the Lincoln Public Schools' science focus program at the Children's Zoo, both of which drew protesters who oppose her views on public education. The education secretary ended the visit with a brief media availability.

And earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue met publicly with local farmers, ranchers and others alongside Ricketts in Alliance to hear concerns regarding trade and regulations, as well as the farm bill now before Congress.

Asked why Pruitt's meetings at the Governor's Mansion did not appear on Ricketts' public schedule released every week, NET reported last October a spokesman for the governor said the meeting was not a public event.

Private meeting 'nothing sinister'

Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau who took part in a roundtable discussion on Oct. 20 with Pruitt, Ricketts, Bacon and others as part of the Common Sense Nebraska Coalition, said he welcomed the chance to share his opinion on WOTUS with Pruitt.

“The previous administration had not handled the WOTUS rule very well,” Nelson said, adding that the new definitions created by the rule were overly burdensome, affecting “anyone who has any contact with the land.”

Although the meeting was held away from the public eye, Nelson said “nothing sinister was happening.” He said in addition to repealing the WOTUS rule, several people spoke in favor of furthering the Renewable Fuel Standards, which would benefit both agriculture and the environment.

But George Cunningham, chair of the Missouri Valley Group of the Nebraska Sierra Club, said the meeting was limited to “a group of people who hate any support of water regulation in the country.”

Pruitt left the roundtable talks at the Governor’s Mansion to meet with a small group of railroad executives at Union Pacific Center in downtown Omaha for an hour before returning to Washington.

According to an email from Mike Rock, Union Pacific’s vice president for external relations, to Tate Bennett, the EPA’s associate administrator for public engagement and environmental education, the railroad executives had a specific set of discussion items in mind.

In addition to WOTUS, Union Pacific also wanted to talk about the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s signature climate change policy, and expanding the list of chemically treated wood that could be burned for fuel after they are removed from rail lines.

The Clean Power Plan, which President Donald Trump has said he’ll repeal, sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector, while also imposing new regulations on the emissions from coal-fired power plants, among others.

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Scaling back the amount of electricity produced through coal-fired plants would have hit a $2.6 billion source of revenue for Union Pacific, which according to the company’s website ships 200 million tons of coal each year.

The EPA also loosened a rule allowing creosote-treated railroad ties to be burned as fuel in 2016, but left other wood treatments, including creosote-borate, copper-naphthenate and copper naphthenate-borate off the burnable fuels list, pending further review that began last year.

Creosote ties represent a majority of all railroad ties purchased by the largest seven railroad companies in North America, including Union Pacific, according to a 2014 survey conducted on behalf of several railroad industry organizations.

Roughly 40 percent of the 14.9 million ties purchased in 2013 were treated with chemicals not approved for burning by the EPA, however, until a rule change was finalized earlier this year over objection from environmental groups.

UP chief calls Pruitt 'breath of fresh air'

While the rule change was a topic of discussion between Union Pacific executives and the EPA chief, the railroad declined to say what position it took on the proposal during the previously unreported Oct. 20 meeting with Pruitt.

“It is public knowledge that Union Pacific meets with elected and government officials to discuss topics important to Union Pacific, our employees, shareholders, communities and roughly 10,000 customers,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

“While we do not share the details of those meetings, Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz referenced in his Oct. 23 blog post to employees his meeting with Secretary Pruitt.”

Fritz praised Pruitt in the blog post for “protecting our nation’s natural resources and environment while treating industrial companies like Union Pacific as partners instead of competitors or worse.”

“He is an amazing breath of fresh air in terms of how he is regulating industrial America,” Fritz continued. “It will make a big difference in the long run, both in effective environmental regulations that improve our lives, as well as in the competitiveness of the United States in the global competition for jobs.”

Corbin said while opponents to Obama’s environmental policies voiced concerns about government overreach, the pendulum has swung the other way.

“To me, right now, the overreach is business,” he said. “I can’t deny there are times when the government has made rules that are onerous, but for the most part, we have a system of checks and balances to limit that."

Cunningham said news of private meetings between the current EPA administrator and industry leaders to discuss rollback of government regulations was not surprising, considering Pruitt’s history as attorney general of Oklahoma, where he sued the Obama administration 14 times to block new environmental regulations.

“This is par for the course for Scott Pruitt,” he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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