50+ Interviews With EPA Staff: Trump Poses ‘Greatest Threat’ to Agency in 47-Year History
From repealing and replacing Obamacare to constructing that border wall, President Donald Trump has broken a lot of promises that he made on the campaign trail. However, there is one area where Trump has been seemingly true to the his word—crippling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to the first of a series of reports from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), the Trump administration poses the greatest threat to the EPA’s 47-year history.
The group’s stunning analysis, The EPA Under Siege, draws on institutional history and the insight of more than 50 interviews with long-term EPA staff, who are unidentified in the report for their protection. The report’s authors have identified plummeting morale, mutual distrust between political appointees and career staff, and paralysis of operations within the EPA under current Administrator Scott Pruitt.
“Twice before, presidential administrations in North America have targeted their own environmental agencies with comparable aggression, in the early Reagan administration (1981-1983) and under Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006-2015),” the EDGI report’s authors state. “Trump’s assault is on track to surpass these.”
The EDGI is an international coalition of academics and nonprofits organizations that formed after Trump’s election to address potential threats to federal environmental and energy policy. You may know of their detailed work on tracking changes to federal websites.
There are many unsettling revelations from the report, but this section says it all:
“From their front row seats, many agency veterans now think they see a gathering profile of the Trump administration’s long game: to abolish the EPA. ‘I think there’s a general consensus among the career people,’ one tells us, ‘that at bottom they’re basically trying to destroy the place.’ Another, working in a different office, elaborates: ‘I think this is just phase one … I think there’s a much bigger master plan [discernible] if you read into what came out of restructuring … we’re going to be structured out. I think they’re either going to break us up again and send us back to the … programs we came from, or combine us with Energy or strip even further programs from us so that there’s just a real exceedingly small base that’s doing this work. I think the plan is to get rid of EPA.‘”
Here are some of the other allegations from the EPA staff (you can read the whole collection of quotes here):
Pruitt has never met with environmental groups. “I don’t believe he’s met with any environmental groups to date, so he’s still kind of sticking with his core business, government groups.” Almost no one interviewed in the report has had contact with Pruitt himself or seen him around the office. Rather, they take note of his frequent trips around the country and visits with like-minded constituencies, such as Western governors, farmers and coal miners.
Pruitt has banned staff from taking notes. “There’s a premium on, I would say secrecy. Meaning senior managers that are going into meetings with Pruitt…. aren’t [allowed to compile] written materials. They’re asked not to take notes, not to take a computer in and type notes… Everything is just verbal. If it’s just verbal, then there’s no record that you can get a FOIA to see what happened.”
Pruitt has requested around-the-clock security. “Pruitt is requesting in the 2018 budget that he have a security team, 24/7, made up of 10 people because he feels his life is I guess at risk because there’s such internal hatred at EPA. This is scary and unfounded.”
Pruitt’s first speech to the agency was carefully stage-managed to avoid dissent. His speech also never alluded to the EPA’s longstanding work in safeguarding human health, science, scientists, ecology or even climate change. One staff member recalled, “I can say that many of us were seething after watching his speech. Well, watching it ‘live’ from the EPA TV. Junior staff were not permitted to attend in person. All staff were provided with the opportunity to rsvp to attend but apparently the rsvp list was reviewed with a fine toothed comb so only those certain to not cause a disruption during the speech, would be there. I assume that means old people with suits (which is what we saw on the EPA tv while watching the speech). Yes, I too was wondering when he would mention human health. Apparently never!”
Trump’s visit to the EPA was met with frustration from staff employees. During Trump’s March 28 visit to the agency’s headquarters to sign “new energy revolution” executive order to undo Obama’s climate policies he was flanked by coal miners, Pruitt, Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretaries of Energy Rick Perry and Interior Ryan Zinke. However, few people at the EPA were invited. One interviewee said, “We were frankly insulted that the President would come to EPA to announce that he is overturning the work to battle the most urgent environmental problem of our generation—climate change. It was beyond comprehension that an Administration could be so arrogant and callous.” Another veteran official described it as an “in-your-face, insulting [a] thing as I’ve experienced in my time here.”
Some staff believe that Trump’s draconian 2018 EPA budget proposal was influenced by conservative think-tanks. One EPA worker’s “personal opinion” was that “it’s all from the Heritage Foundation’s report, almost verbatim … they just literally went through the list and said well this is climate change, boom this goes. EJ [environmental justice] we couldn’t care less about that, this goes.”