“We take for granted that when we turn on the tap, someone has tested the water to make sure it’s safe and drinkable,” Trish Koman, a former EPA scientist, explains. “If you don’t have those basic things, the contract between the American people and its government will shatter.
“We’ve seen that here in Flint, Michigan. If this keeps happening, the public won’t trust what’s going on – and those connections, which are easy to pull apart, are very, very hard to rebuild.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in trouble. Scott Pruitt, the new administrator, has made it clear that there's a new sheriff in town.
Scientists are being let go and replaced by climate change deniers, coal lobbyists, or former petrochemical industry lawyers. Major federal carbon-cutting programs have been nixed. The phrase “climate change” wasn’t mentioned once in its latest four-year mission statement.
Major academic studies on air and water pollution are being shut down. Scientists are no longer allowed to influence policy at the agency. Climatologists may be forced to “debate” climate deniers live on TV in order to display a false equivalency. Doubt is regularly cast not just on whether or not humans are driving climate change, but whether carbon dioxide causes climate change at all.
This is what’s known from an outsider’s perspective. With transparency a thing of the past, it’s hard to understand what this dramatic changing of the guard is like from the inside – and that’s why we contacted former key scientists who worked at the EPA to tell us.
The President’s Secret Three-Page Plan
Betsy Southerland was the former director of science and technology at the Office of Water. She spent much of her 30-year-long career providing the science for, and implementing, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and several more designed to prevent marine pollution and oil spills.
If you have safe drinking water or live near rivers with fish safe to eat swimming through them, this is thanks to her department’s work. This summer, she resigned – with an eloquent, fiery letter to boot. In it, she described her heartbreak that the EPA cannot do the “right thing” under the Trump administration.
“I wrote that resignation letter because I really felt there was a clear and present danger to public health and safety by this administration,” she tells IFLScience. “I was afraid that people did not understand how serious this threat was.”
At this point, during our chat about her work, Southerland tells us something rather extraordinary about a man named Bob Murray.
Murray is one of the most powerful coal magnates on the planet. He’s corresponded with the President on several occasions about financial aid for his industry, and as Southerland says, he recently composed a “three-page action plan” that only a handful of people in the administration have seen.
“One of the first things on that front page was to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which of course Pruitt has just done,” Southerland explains. Apparently, they've only got through the first page.
This is a plan that, written by one of the President’s largest campaign sponsors, reportedly outlines the systematic removal of the government’s environmental protection programs. In effect, Bob Murray is “running [part] of the federal government.”
When asked what else is in this three-page plan, Southerland told us she didn't know, but it's going to follow a similar theme.
“Congress needs to require Donald Trump to turn this three-page action plan over,” Southerland stresses. “The public needs to see this.”
Regardless of what Murray's eventually goals may or may not be, the resuscitation of coal isn’t going to happen, no matter how hard anyone tries. The reality is that there are around a quarter of a million jobs in the United States of America in the clean energy sector right now, while coal is down to about 55,000 people. It peaked in the 1920s, and it’s been in a death spiral ever since.
Market forces, the cheapness of natural gas, and the proliferation of wind and solar power have ensured that coal is never going to be saved. The idea it will be is a "false narrative," Southerland says, and environmental regulations have very little to do with it.
Industry Is Now In Charge
Koman, who has been working at the EPA since the early days of the Clinton administration, left in 2012 to join the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. She spent her days working on air pollution directives and spearheaded nationwide programs designed to investigate its effects on our health.
She points out that her old job was never filled when she left, partly because Congress was already failing to fund the EPA adequately.
“The new cuts, then, will substantially hobble the agency. Even the rumor that budgets will be cut this badly is enough to damage the EPA’s ability to attract and retain new scientific talent.”
Either way, “different programs waxed and waned over these administrations, but science was always applied to protect public health,” she explains. “Industry was always trying to remove our ability to do this sort of work,” but no matter what party was in power, these interests never represented “a threat”.
“The changes taking place now are on an unprecedented scale.” As part of this changing of the guard, it's expected that “industry people are put in charge of science advisor panels... and they will move slowly,” or frame things in a pro-corporate way.
“They are fundamentally deconstructing the institutions of the EPA, and as a result, it won’t be able to do its job, to protect human health and the environment.”
Mike Cox, a former EPA scientist who focused on water protection and greenhouse gas reductions, was with the agency as far back as 1987, under the Reagan administration. He retired in April, again with a powerful resignation letter that decried Pruitt’s denial of “fundamental climate science”.
“I had planned on retiring earlier because I figured someone would replace me and the work I was doing would continue,” he tells IFLScience.
“When that didn’t happen, I wondered if I should leave at all. People told me I couldn’t because if I did my job would be gone, and no-one would do that work – which was true, that’s exactly what happened.”
He explains that, after working under five administrations, what he experienced under the latest is nothing less than a creeping corruption of the agency’s mission.
“There’s an open hostility and a total lack of engagement towards staff – fundamentally different from the past, no matter if a Republican or Democrat was in charge,” Cox says.
“The most insidious thing is that the staff being brought on board by Pruitt are from James Inhofe's [close allies], the biggest climate denier in the American government.” Inhofe is arguably most infamous for bringing a snowball to the Senate floor in order to "disprove" global warming.
Cox explains how Inhofe has said that the EPA is "indoctrinating or brainwashing the youth of America" – and "he once compared the agency to a Gestapo bureaucracy."
“He’s said terrible, awful things – and now his staff are in charge of the EPA.”
We ask whether he thinks people still working there should stick around, hold out, and hope things change for the better. Cox explains that plenty of young researchers think that they’ve made a mistake, asking “What am I still doing here?” but he hopes that they remain.
Southerland is quick to point out that it’s not just the EPA’s scientists that are threatened by the White House – it’s all of them, across all departments and agencies.
“I don’t know where else EPA researchers would go,” she explains. “Every single environmental agency depends on the federal government to support their environmental programmes,” but Pruitt’s “draconian cuts” are also destroying jobs.
Truth and Consequences
Some critics of the agency argue that Pruitt will curb its so-called federal overreach and that it will be up to individual states to sort out how they deal with pollution. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to find a problem with that argument.
Much in the same way that the Paris agreement makes it clear that climate change makes international borders irrelevant, “air and water pollution don’t obey state boundaries,” stresses Southerland.
“So if you have a state that is uninterested in protecting the environment, those states could cause all the downstream downwind states from having very dirty air and very dirty water.
“That’s why the EPA exists: to ensure that every state, no matter what their own political ideology, meets some minimal national standard of pollution control.”
No matter who we spoke to, they agree that the EPA has become a very different beast very quickly. Pruitt is making political calculations that appease lobbyists and a particular set of voters. He literally stands with coal miners, celebrating the end of climate advocacy programs, and selling them a false narrative about returning jobs.
“Our mission isn’t to protect the fossil fuel industry; it’s to protect human health and the environment,” Cox laments. “That’s just not happening anymore.”
We put it to Southerland that some have said that Scott Pruitt is the most dangerous member of the Trump administration, other than the President himself. “That’s completely accurate,” she replies.
Is there any chance things will improve? Will Scott Pruitt ever be convinced by facts, science, and reason?
“No,” Southerland replies.
The EPA’s official position is that they are making the science at the agency more objective by not allowing their own scientists to advise it. Pruitt’s rollback of environmental protections are referred to as the removal of “job-killing regulations.” The Paris agreement is seen as “penalizing” America’s economy. The colossal changes to the science advisory boards are portrayed as “providing the public with a better, more effective government.”
Not a single researcher or staffer we spoke to agreed with these standpoints. We repeatedly reached out to the EPA for comment, but so far haven’t received a reply.
Back in 1970, President Nixon, giving a speech from the White House, outlined why the creation of the EPA was essential. “Congress, the Administration and the public all share a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man.”
How times have changed.