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Policy & Politics EPA Seal

Published on September 26th, 2019 | by Steve Hanley

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Fired EPA Scientists Band Together To Continue Their Work

September 26th, 2019 by  


In October of last year, the EPA disbanded an advisory panel of scientists whose mission was to advise the agency on air pollution standards. On the anniversary of that action, many of those same scientists will meet in the same hotel in Washington where they always met before to carry on their work as private citizens rather than public employees.

Fine Particulate Matter

EPA Seal

Credit: EPA

The scientists focus on the health impacts of fine particulate matter in the air. Burning fossil fuels — whether it’s gasoline, diesel, coal, oil, or natural gas — creates tiny particles that are so small they can cross directly into the bloodstream in the lungs and contribute to cardiovascular, pulmonary, and neurological disease. Fossil fuels are the basis of the global economy but their waste products are making us all sick and shortening our lives.

That’s not something the companies who generate huge profits from the extraction, transportation, and sale of fossil fuels want to hear, so they pay flotillas of lobbyists to insulate them from any regulations that might increase their costs of doing business. The Trump administration is staffed top to bottom with fossil fuel stooges who are only too happy to do the companies’ bidding in order to garner lucrative “fellowships” when their “service to the public” is done.

One of the scientists dismissed last year who is joining the new group is Doug Dockery of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. He was the lead author of the landmark Six Cities study that linked the particle pollution from fossil fuels, called “particulate matter,” to early deaths. No wonder the political operatives at EPA wanted to throw him overboard.

Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells The Guardian that rolling back the particulate regulations is the “holy grail” for industry. Weak standards mean “cities across the country wouldn’t have to do as much to keep their air clean, industry could get more permits approved, it would be easier to rollback environmental regulations,” she says. The finding that particle pollution is harmful to human health is integrated into nearly all major pollution standards for power plants, vehicle emission standards, and project permits, Goldman says.

The government counts the health benefits of reducing particle pollution, in addition to the health benefits of cutting other pollutants, in justifying the costs of regulations. If Trump officials can argue that particle pollution isn’t as bad as previously thought, they can strengthen industry arguments for scaling back environment and health protections.

The Fired EPA Scientists Speak Out

One of the scientists dismissed by the EPA last year is Chris Frey, professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University. He chaired the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and was a member of its Science Advisory Board. After The Donald took office, he tells The Guardian, “Initially there was a neglectful relationship with the new Trump administration. They seemed uninterested and the amount of scientific advisory board work dropped off. Then, from October 2018, there were the first signs of an ideological assault on scientific advice at the EPA.”

“Scott Pruitt [then administrator of the EPA] wrote a memo that said that researchers that have received grants from the EPA aren’t allowed to serve on panels because of a perceived conflict of interest. But there was no prohibition on industry people serving and the number of them on the panels has increased. It’s been a way to kick qualified people off the boards and get cronies in their place.

“There was a complete turnover of CASAC and it shows in meetings. They now bumble through things because they don’t understand the process and the Clean Air Act. Political appointees are interfering with the selection of candidates, essentially picking those sympathetic to the agenda of the administration, even if they have fringe views like climate change isn’t happening, that kind of stuff.

“I was on a panel looking at the risks posed by particulate matter. We had a lot more work to do but we were disbanded four days before the EPA released an assessment that we would’ve reviewed. The timing was mind-boggling. I found out by seeing a press release on the EPA website, which was followed by an email saying our services were no longer needed.

“I was also a nominee for a panel on ozone but then they said they wouldn’t go ahead with that. It was a little frustrating for me personally, but it’s more of a loss to the American public. The EPA has always been thought of as a science-based agency; what we see now is no basic respect for science.

“There’s not even lip service to the science. Science can’t be controlled like ideological spin, so the administration is afraid of that. They don’t want scientists and their evidence-based opinions — they’d rather have cronies trot out the same tired talking points on fringe scientific views.”

“Draining The Swamp” Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Trump campaigned on the idea that he was going to Washington to “drain the swamp.” It was assumed he meant getting rid of the lobbyists and power brokers but that’s not what he had in mind at all. Joel Clement was involved in studying how climate change was affecting the Arctic before he was shoved aside by the incoming administration.

He says, “The new Trump team was very thin and most of them knew very little about the agency mission – they were mostly oil and gas lobbyists and some campaign workers. Whatever they were talking about up on the secretary’s hallway, it sure wasn’t being shared with the career staff at the agency. So you basically had 70,000 employees scratching their heads and getting back to doing their jobs while a couple dozen political appointees tried to get their act together to lead them. It was surreal.”

“But this neglect soon turned into scorn, characterized by comments from the new secretary, Ryan Zinke, that the staff were disloyal. Morale began to quickly plummet as the political ranks showed not only ignorance of, but disdain for the wide-ranging agency mission. Here you had tens of thousands of people working hard in public service and being told what they do is not important.

“The National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service had it worst because they didn’t have anything to do with oil and gas or mining permitting process, and the lobbyists in charge had no interest in wildlife, conservation or biodiversity.

“But every agency suffered, because the mantra of the administration was to drain the swamp — and it quickly became clear that the swamp was not the high-paid lobbyists, but the rank-and-file government professionals who serve the country.(Emphasis added.)

Forget About Water Quality

Betsy Southerland worked for the EPA for 33 years, mostly focusing on water quality, before retiring in August, 2017. “We’ve never seen anything like this complete abandonment of science, solely to maximize corporate profits,” she says.

“Everything changed after the election. The climate change section of the EPA website came down and Scott Pruitt came in and brought in a bunch of political appointees who didn’t need Senate confirmation.

“I was working on a chemical safety rule that was rewritten by Nancy Beck, someone from the American Chemistry Council [an industry lobby group] who Pruitt brought in. It basically repeated the talking points she used on the chemistry council.

“Pruitt never spoke to any of the career staff before he made decisions on replacing rules. I worked on a rule that would require coal-fired power plants to treat toxic waste rather than simply dump it into leaky ponds. Pruitt met with Bob Murray [head of the coal mining firm Murray Energy Corporation] and decided to postpone the rule and the first we knew about it was when we were asked to check a draft press release about the rollback.

“Scientists are really irrelevant at the EPA now, their input isn’t requested. They are simply directed by the political team to help fulfill the desires of political donors, no matter the cost to Americans. At the moment it’s just a logistical question of how fast they can go on this. They have something like 70 regulation repeals under way and because it will be hard to do this with legal challenges they want to undermine the underlying science.”

Character Assassination Goes Mainstream

“Within a couple of days of me leaving, an opposition research firm did a freedom of information request for all my emails and the EPA immediately handed them over. I found out they made a big effort to connect with all the right wing media to trash me. They made up this lie that I was being paid more than a Congress member for every year of my retirement. It got really ugly, so I got off social media. The same opposition group then tried to find out if any EPA employees donated to [Bernie] Sanders or [Elizabeth] Warren. It’s stunning to target federal employees like that. I’ve never seen that before.”

You might think you are reading about how things are done in the old Soviet Union, where every government agency had to answer to political commissars who were staunch members of the Communist Party. But no, this is how the Jackass In Chief thinks America will become great again, by burying scientific research and attempting to destroy the credibility of anyone who does not toe the party line.

It is curious how the United States has now come to emulate its old nemesis and how many people who would have roundly condemned the USSR a generation ago for its totalitarian tendencies are wildly cheering the same strongarm tactics today. A nation that worships idiocy can never hope to attain greatness. 
 

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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.



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