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Government Watchdog: EPA Broke Ethics Rules as It Replaced Academic Advisers With Industry Appointees

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Trump shakes hands with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt after announcing his decision for the U.S. to pull out of the Paris agreement on June 1, 2017. Win McNamee / Getty Images

President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated ethics rules when it replaced academic members of advisory boards with industry appointees, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported Monday.


The federal watchdog found that, in 2018, the EPA did not gather documents from staff explaining the rationale for appointing new members to two key advisory committees and failed to ensure that all committee members appointed as special government employees met ethics requirements.

"This report shows that the Trump administration rigged influential advisory boards to favor its polluter backers," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement reported by The New York Times.

The EPA failed to follow its own process when it appointed 20 new members to the Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee in fiscal year 2018, GAO said. EPA staff typically provide rationales for why a person was recommended, but the appointment packets reviewed by the GAO for the two committees did not include those documents.

Further, the agency is supposed to ensure that board members appointed as special government employees do not have conflicts of interest that would prevent them from giving unbiased advice. But 23 percent of the financial disclosure forms reviewed by the GAO were not signed and dated by ethics officials.

The composition of some boards also significantly changed during the first year of the Trump administration, the report found. The number of academics on the Scientific Advisory Board fell 27 percent and, on the Board of Scientific Counselors, 45 percent. In contrast, the number of academics on the boards remained stable during the first year of the Obama administration, The New York Times reported.

The composition changes coincided with a rule by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt barring anyone who had received EPA funding from sitting on a board. This posed a problem for academics, InsideClimate News explained, because the EPA funds a lot of environmental research. But the hole left by the academic members was filled by industry-linked scientists and private consultants, the report confirmed.

"The non-partisan GAO confirms what we've been critical of all along: The Trump Administration is violating its own rules by putting industry officials in charge of crucially important science advisory boards," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and one of the lawmakers who requested the investigation, said, as InsideClimate News reported.

Donna Vizian, EPA principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Mission Support, defended the agency's changes to the selection process for the two committees named in the report.

"Since the membership process was followed with an enhancement to ensure that only the best, most qualified applicants were chosen to serve on the federal advisory committees in question, we deem this finding to be inaccurate and possibly misleading," she wrote in a formal response reported by InsideClimate News.

The EPA told the GAO that it had replaced the committee membership recommendation grids submitted by staff with in-person briefings, but provided no documentation as proof of the briefings.

Christopher Zarba, who served as director of the EPA's Science Advisory Board staff office until 2018, disputed the EPA's official account of its new process.

"This is bullshit. There was no other process. There was no review, no feedback, at least when I was there," Zarba told BuzzFeed News.

Vizian blamed the unsigned financial disclosure documents on an understaffed ethics office, InsideClimate News reported.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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