EPA staffer leaves with a bang, blasting agency policies under Trump
By Joe Davidson – Columnist April 7, 2017
When Mike Cox quit, he did so with gusto.
After 25 years, he retired last week from the Environmental Protection Agency with a tough message for the boss, Administrator Scott Pruitt.
“I, along with many EPA staff, are becoming increasing alarmed about the direction of EPA under your leadership … ” Cox said in a letter to Pruitt. “The policies this Administration is advancing are contrary to what the majority of the American people, who pay our salaries, want EPA to accomplish, which are to ensure the air their children breath is safe; the land they live, play, and hunt on to be free of toxic chemicals; and the water they drink, the lakes they swim in, and the rivers they fish in to be clean.”
Cox was a climate change adviser for EPA’s Region 10, covering Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, he’s been very involved in Bainbridge, Wash., coaching youth sports and serving on local boards and commissions. For two decades, the fit 60-year-old rode his bike eight miles to the ferry, then uphill to his Seattle office.
He can get away with being so blunt because he sent the letter on his last day on the job. Yet his views reflect the disgust and frustration among the agency employees he left behind. Interviews with staffers point to a workforce demoralized by President Trump’s and Pruitt’s statements that conflict with science. They are worried about a new, backward direction for the agency and nervous about proposed, drastic budget cuts.
They are also fearful.
Twice during an hour of interviews for this column, EPA workers in different parts of the country asked to communicate with me by using encryption software. All who spoke feared retaliation and would not allow their names to be used.
“It is pretty bleak,” one staffer, an environmental engineer, said about employee morale.
“It’s in the dumps,” said another.
“Pretty much everybody is updating their resumes. It’s grim,” added a third.
They and their colleagues are dedicated to EPA’s mission to “protect human health and the environment.” They fear that Trump administration policies will do the opposite.
Like Cox, they are upset with an administrator casting doubt on the central role carbon dioxide plays in climate change. “You will continue to undermine your credibility and integrity with EPA staff, and the majority of the public, if you continue to question this basic science of climate change,” Cox wrote.
Of course, Pruitt’s position is no surprise for a man who was appointed by a president who called climate change a hoax.
To see the effects of climate change, Cox invited Pruitt to “visit the Pacific Northwest and see where the streams are too warm for our salmon to survive in the summer; visit the oyster farmers in Puget Sound whose stocks are being altered from the oceans becoming more acidic; talk to the ski area operators who are seeing less snowpack and worrying about their future; and talk to the farmers in Eastern Washington who are struggling to have enough water to grow their crops and water their cattle. The changes I am referencing are not impacts projected for the future, but are happening now.”
Trump’s proposed EPA budget is the vehicle for his science-doubting policies.
His 31 percent budget decrease would be the largest among agencies not eliminated. It would result in layoffs for 25 percent of the staff and cuts to 50 EPA programs, The Washington Post reported Sunday. Lost would be more than half the positions in the division testing automaker fuel efficiency claims.
An EPA environmental engineer is “almost hopeful” for a partial government shutdown, which could happen after April 28 if Congress doesn’t approve a spending measure, because “it’s better than getting axed right away.”
Cox challenged the “indefensible budget cuts,” asking Pruitt “why resources for Alaska Native Villages are being reduced when they are presented with some of the most difficult conditions in the country; why you would eliminate funds for the protection and restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem which provides thousands of jobs and revenue for Washington State; and why you would reduce funds for a program that retrofits school buses to reduce diesel emission exhaust inhaled by our most vulnerable population — children.”
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment on Cox’s letter, but Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, did.
Now that Trump is moving toward “radically downsizing the EPA,” Ebell said, “employees who are opposed to the Trump Administration’s agenda are either going to conduct themselves as professional civil servants or find other employment or retire or be terminated. I would be more sympathetic if they had ever expressed any concern for the people whose jobs have been destroyed by EPA’s regulatory rampage.”
They are conducting themselves as the professional civil servants they are, even as they are distressed over the direction of the agency. They complain quietly, sometimes openly, but without rebellion.
“We still have to go on until they shut the lights off,” said one EPA manager. “People here are committed to the mission and not necessarily to a paycheck.”
Coping takes different forms.
Black humor and burying themselves in a project’s scientific minutia will work for some.
“For the rest of us,” added one longtime regional staffer, “there probably will be a significant rise in alcoholism.”
Tell us how federal employees are dealing with Trump administration policies and proposed budget cuts. Send information to email@example.com.
New EPA documents reveal even deeper proposed cuts to staff and programs
By Juliet Eilperin, Chris Mooney and Steven Mufson March 31, 2017
The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a new, more detailed plan for laying off 25 percent of its employees and scrapping 56 programs including pesticide safety, water runoff control, and environmental cooperation with Mexico and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
At a time when the agency is considering a controversial rollback in fuel efficiency standards adopted under President Obama, the plan would cut by more than half the number of people in EPA’s division for testing the accuracy of fuel efficiency claims by automakers.
It would transfer funding for the program to fees paid by the automakers themselves.
The spending plan, obtained by The Washington Post, offers the most detailed vision to date of how the 31 percent budget cut to the EPA ordered up by President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget would diminish the agency.
The March 21 plan calls for even deeper reductions in staffing than earlier drafts. It maintains funding given to states to administer waste treatment and drinking water. But as a result, the budget for the rest of EPA is slashed 43 percent.
The Trump administration says the EPA cuts reflect a philosophy of limiting federal government and devolving authority to the states, localities and, in some cases, corporations. But environmental groups say the Trump administration is answering the call of companies seeking lax regulation and endangering Americans’ air and water.
Former EPA official: Cuts would target most vulnerable communities
In a memorandum at the front of the March 21 document, the EPA’s acting chief financial officer David A. Bloom said the agency would now “center on our core legal requirements,” eliminating voluntary activities on scientific research, climate change and education, and leaving other activities to state and local governments.
John Konkus, the agency spokesman said: “EPA will work with the President and Congress to redesign the way we do business to focus on achieving our core responsibilities – working with the states to ensure clean and breathable air, protecting water quality and investing in infrastructure, restoring our communities, ensuring timely review of chemicals and products to ensure safety for American families, all of which will have a positive impact on the environment and the economy.”
The $5.7 billion EPA budget will likely undergo massive rewriting by congressional lawmakers, but the document is a declaration of intent by the Trump administration — one that sets the agency fundamentally at odds with the environmental policies of the past eight years and in some cases nearly three decades.
Because of the sweeping cuts to scientific programs, the administrator’s own Science Advisory Board budget would be cut 84 percent. As the document explains, it would not need much money due to “an anticipated lower number of peer reviews.”
Reductions in research funds will curtail programs on climate change, water quality, and chemical safety, and “safe and sustainable water resources,” the document said.
Ken Kopocis, who headed EPA’s Office of Water in 2014 and 2015, said in an interview that the $165 million proposed cut to the agency’s nonpoint source pollution program would deprive farmers of critical funds to help curb agricultural runoff.
Several congressional Republicans have expressed support for reorienting the EPA’s mission, though lawmakers are likely to restore some of the funding.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement Friday, “There is room to cut wasteful programs in EPA’s budget and at the same time, realign how taxpayer money is best allocated” by “giving states greater say in how they protect and manage their resources.”
In a recent interview, Sen. James M. Inhofe said he would like the department to focus on more traditional environmental concerns rather than addressing climate change.
“What I want them to do is to do what they are supposed to be doing – be concerned about the environment, the water, the air,” he said. “I’d like to see an EPA there to actually serve people and make life better for them.”
Inhofe said some of the members of the scientific advisory boards scheduled for cuts had political biases. “They’re going to have to start dealing with science, not rigged science.”
But S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said eliminating the money for such advisory boards would inevitably compromise the agency’s science capabilities.
“This is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “If they have less research and less peer review, they’re going to have less of a foundation on which to base human health-based air quality standards.”
The list of programs completely eliminated grew in the latest plan.
A program to teach and monitor the proper handling of pesticides would be nearly eliminated, and instead rely fees paid by the industry.
Many people in industry might enlist lawmakers’ help in opposing those plans. CropLife America executive vice president Beau Greenwood, whose group represents U.S. pesticide manufacturers and distributors, said in an interview Friday that while the industry is “willing to put skin in the game to ensure the agency has sufficient funding” for reviewing its products, it already provides more than $46 million a year under the Pesticide Registration Improvement Extension Act.
“Extra fees on top of extra fees is something that we would oppose,” Greenwood said.
The latest EPA budget plan would abolish programs that study known environmental hazards including lead, poor indoor air quality, and radiation.
Others programs that help protect Americans from cancer would also face the axe — including the $ 1.34 million indoor air radon program which works to protect the public against the invisible gas that is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Radon kills 21,000 people annually, according to the EPA.
The EPA’s radiation program, currently funded at $2.34 million, which sets standards for safe levels of ionizing radiation in the environment caused by radioactive elements such as uranium, is also slated for elimination — but it is unclear how fully eliminating its activities is possible.
The document also recommends a $28.9 million cut in the enforcement of clean up projects for Superfund sites, places where hazardous materials require long-term response plans.
In each case, the budget document says that these programs can be eliminated because they do not represent core agency priorities or can be deferred to states.
The budget document also proposes the elimination of regional programs focused on restoring watersheds and coastal and marine habitats. These include programs for the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Champlain, Long Island Sound, Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay, the Great Lakes, and South Florida.
The document notes that these are areas where EPA is working with localities to restore damaged ecosystems and watersheds. It says that EPA’s regulatory heft isn’t needed and that localities must take responsibility.
“In some ways, the common thread …. is, unless there’s an explicit legal mandate that EPA has to do something, that EPA shouldn’t be doing it,” said Stan Meiburg, a longtime EPA career employee who served as acting deputy administrator of the agency late in the Obama years.
Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post’s senior national affairs correspondent, covering how the new administration is transforming a range of U.S. policies and the federal government itself. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
Chris Mooney reports on science and the environment.
Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial matters. Since joining The Post, he has covered the White House, China, economic policy and diplomacy.