EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks to employees in February.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks to employees in February. Susan Walsh/AP

EPA Employees, Unions and Scientists Upset at Science Board Firings

Pruitt might replace academics on advisory panel with industry reps.

Friday’s report that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is “considering” replacing academic scientists on an advisory review board with industry representatives prompted anguish and criticism from employees and outside science groups.

As reported by The New York Times, five members of the Board of Scientific Counselors were told they would not be given their expected reappointments, followed by a statement from EPA spokesman J. P. Freire saying that Pruitt “believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” as part of President Trump’s effort to roll back many EPA regulations.

In a statement to Government Executive, Freire said, “Advisory panels like BOSC play a critical role reviewing the agency’s work. EPA received hundreds of nominations to serve on the board, and we want to ensure fair consideration of all the nominees – including those nominated who may have previously served on the panel – and carry out a competitive nomination process."

On Monday, local Council 238 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which includes 9,000 EPA employees around the country, issued a statement expressing concern about “scientific integrity and whether or not the scientists eliminated from the [board] will be replaced with impartial scientists or with scientists who will operate within the arena of opinions or industry prejudice.” Citing Pruitt and Trump’s skepticism toward the urgency of climate change, Chicago-based AFGE council president John O’Grady, said, “Opinions are neither fact nor theory and do not belong to the realm of science.”

Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told Government Executive his group is concerned about the dismissals. “Academic scientists play a critical role in informing policy with scientific research results at every level, including the federal government,” he said. “We hope that EPA reconsiders this decision, and would welcome an opportunity to meet with Administrator Scott Pruitt to discuss how scientists can best advise the Environmental Protection Agency on environmental science.”

The nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility heard from numerous EPA employees who spoke anonymously, having already received an all-staff memo from Pruitt that was “pro-business.” The employees “are shocked and dismayed that the Trump administration actually went through with this,” a PEER spokeswoman said. “People are simultaneously appalled but resigned. There’s a feeling internally that there are no mechanisms for employees to appeal actions like this, or even express concerns.” 

Jared Blumenfeld, the Region 9 EPA regional administrator under the Obama administration, said, “When Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act, they gave science a central role... By firing objective and independent scientists and replacing them with industry shills, the Trump EPA is working to undermine both the role of science and public confidence in science as a way of helping polluters no longer have to update public health protections.”

That view was echoed by David Doniger, director of climate and clean air program at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, who called Pruitt’s intentions “another way in which the fox is in the henhouse. It’s all of one theme,” he said, citing Pruitt’s removal of climate change material from the EPA website, planned budget cuts and Pruitt’s incomplete—in NRDC’s view—recusal of himself from litigation and rulemakings affecting cases Pruitt brought against EPA when he was attorney general of Oklahoma. “It’s all or a piece,” Doniger said, “enfeebling the EPA as an institution and turning the regulator of the polluters into a servant of the polluters.”

One lawmaker who has favored changes in the science advisory board is House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas., whose panel approved legislation (H.R. 1431) to “restock” the board. Sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., it cleared the House in March and sits at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Smith argued the board was populated in recent years with “experts who have become nothing more than rubber stamps who approve all of the EPA’s regulations” and who have a conflict of interest in receiving federal research grants.