Big changes could be coming to the EPA — but no one is sure what

Scott Pruitt

What’s happening at the EPA?

It’s impossible to know for sure. The agency has stopped all public communications, and is not responding to requests from journalists for information.

What information does reach the public arrives via anonymous sources from within the agency.

Some of it, like a temporary freeze on grants and contracts while the new administration reviews them, has been confirmed by multiple media outlets (including from an anonymous tip from an EPA staffer passed to Business Insider).

Another claim — that Trump’s political staff will review EPA data and findings before they’re released —
has been refuted by Doug Ericksen, communications director for President Donald Trump’s transition team at the EPA.

Some claims appear to go back and forth. Reuters reported on Wednesday morning that Trump’s team intended to take down a portion of the EPA’s website with scientific information about climate change, sending scientists into a frenzy of downloading data. By the afternoon, Trump’s team appeared to “stand down” from the decision, according to online environmental news website InsideEPA. For now, the pages appear to still be up. (Except this one, for some reason. You can see the archived version here.)

There haven’t been any meaningful public statements from the administration or the agency on the reports, which may not be wildly unusual in the early days of a new administration. But the mix of silence and disturbing leaks leaves scientists and others who rely on EPA grants and data worried.

“The biggest thing is just not knowing,” Charlyn Partridge, a geneticist and ecologist at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, told Business Insider.

One of Partridge’s lab’s projects is to study and remove “Baby’s Breath,” an invasive plant species that has colonised dunes of Lake Michigan in western Michigan.

A grant from the EPA pays for the equipment, travel, and labour necessary to collect and remove the plants, and the research helps inform lakeshore restoration projects. Like all EPA-grant funded researchers, her work is subject to a strict auditing process to make sure the money is spent properly.

Another grant’s approval is still pending. Partridge said she’s heard nothing, except news reports, about what she and the students in her lab can expect to happen to her funding.

“Scientists are used to adapting, whatever happens. But when you have no idea what you’re supposed to adapt to, that’s when it becomes a bit more complicated,” she said.

Other researchers reached for this story said, similarly, that they don’t know what to expect. But, given the administration’s hostility to climate science, they worry that projects with the word “climate” in their titles are in the most danger.

It’s also possible that profound changes are coming to the structure of science within the EPA itself. A transition document obtained Monday by Axios stated that the “EPA does not use science to guide regulatory policy as much as it uses regulatory policy to steer the science.”

Republicans, and Trump, have long criticised the EPA. For example. the 2016 Republican Party Platform attacks the agency as being based in “shoddy science, scare tactics, and centralised command-and-control regulation.”

A senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who asked to remain anonymous, told Business Insider that scientific researchers in other agencies are watching events at the EPA carefully. But, the scientist said, even senior scientific staff at far-removed wings of the federal government are not yet sure that a purge or scientific censorship won’t come their way as well.

Meanwhile, Myron Ebell, the former head of Trump’s EPA transition team, called Thursday for cutting the EPA staff from 15,000 to a Nixon-era 5,000. Ebell is the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and has repeatedly called climate scientists “global warming alarmists.”

It is as of yet unclear to researchers and the public whether scientists working on climate science, or any other issue, within the EPA, are about to lose their jobs.

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