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By Ben Jervey
Earlier this week, staffers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received their first official email from the new administration. "Changes will likely come and when they do, we will work together to implement them," wrote Don Benton, a senior White House adviser who is now leading the so-called "beachhead" team for the EPA's transition, in the email published by E&E News.
DeSmog dives into what we know about the EPA beachhead team (including what it is and who is on it), whom its members are connected to and what the EPA should expect from the Trump team.
First, who is Don Benton and what is a beachhead team? Benton is a former Washington state legislator (with a history of endorsing conspiracy theories) and the beachhead team is the current incarnation of the EPA transition team, working at the agency to handle the transition until a new administrator is confirmed.
Agency transitions tend to be complicated and confusing and this one is particularly so. So let's take a quick step back and trace the brief but chaotic history of the transfer of power at the EPA. Before President Donald Trump officially took office, his EPA transition team was being lead by Myron Ebell, the notorious climate science denier from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
We've learned recently that Ebell never actually spoke to Trump, that he was actually recruited by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who not long after lost his role on the Trump team) and that Ebell oversaw the creation of an "agency action plan." That plan is confidential and Ebell has refused to talk about it, but Axios received a leaked version and published some startling, if not surprising, details, including plans to fundamentally alter the agency's reliance on science.
The following introduces what the plan calls "problems with EPA science":
"EPA does not use science to guide regulatory policy as much as it uses regulatory policy to steer the science. This is an old problem at EPA. In 1992, a blue-ribbon panel of EPA science advisers that [sic] 'science should not be adjusted to fit policy.' But rather than heed this advice, EPA has greatly increased its science manipulation."
On Inauguration Day, Ebell stepped down from Trump's EPA transition team (or was relieved of his duties—it's not entirely clear) and the new 10-member beachhead team was announced. This team is being led by Benton and Charles Munoz, a 27-year-old who led Trump's presidential campaign in Nevada, where he had also launched the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
The beachhead team members have 90 day contracts and traditionally such a team's role is to prepare the agency staff and bureaucracy for the arrival of the new administrator. As we've reported extensively on DeSmog, Trump nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to serve as EPA administrator and he faced a contentious confirmation hearing before the Senate's Committee for Environment and Public Works.
Yesterday, Democratic senators on the committee boycotted the confirmation vote, demanding more information from Pruitt's office about his "unprecedented, secretive alliance" with fossil fuel companies and calling out his office's refusal to comply with dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests from journalists and researchers from the Center for Media and Democracy. Today, Republicans on the committee suspended the rules to push through the Pruitt vote.
Thanks to a gag order and social media freeze ordered by the Trump Administration, there's little information making it out of the agency, either about what staff is working on or how the beachhead team is managing the transition.
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