The complaint named Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and six top officials in the agency’s offices of Water and General Counsel.

The complaint named Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and six top officials in the agency’s offices of Water and General Counsel. Andrew Harnik/AP

Career Employees Allege EPA Leaders Silenced Them on Key Deregulation Effort

Two offices will review the allegations for potential further investigation and discipline.

The Environmental Protection Agency suppressed the work of its career employees and dismissed legitimate science in taking a key deregulatory action, dozens of former and current employees have alleged. The employees are asking investigators to discipline the top officials responsible. 

The complaint, issued by the nonprofit advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, concerned orders from EPA’s top brass during its process of repealing the Waters of the United States rule implemented during the Obama administration. The current and former employees, made up mostly of EPA staff but also of Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Service workers, called on the EPA inspector general and scientific integrity officer to launch investigations and hold the political appointees accountable. They named EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and a half-dozen top officials in the agency’s offices of Water and General Counsel in their complaint. 

The complainants said political leadership consistently violated provisions of EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy throughout the deregulatory process. That included when career employees were “explicitly cautioned” not to provide formal comments on the rule that would then become part of its docket, resulting in those comments “being withheld from the public.” This also violated a provision of the integrity policy that prohibits leadership from “intimidating or coercing scientists to alter scientific data, findings or professional opinions,” PEER wrote on behalf of the former and current employees. 

PEER noted its complaint reflected the views of all 44 signatories and multiple individuals could personally substantiate each of the allegations. The rule, commonly referred to as WOTUS, defines what is subject to EPA anti-pollution enforcement under the 1972 Clean Water Act. A 2015 EPA rule significantly expanded that definition. 

Ketina Elbaum, a spokeswoman for the EPA inspector general’s office, said it had received the complaint and it would be “under review soon by our leadership team.” The science integrity office had yet to formally receive the letter as of Tuesday afternoon. Upon receipt, the office will determine whether the allegations would indeed amount to a violation of the integrity policy. At that point, it would inform complainants about potential limitations to confidentiality before creating a timeline of events. It would then pore over documents and talk to all relevant parties to hear both sides before presenting its findings to a subcommittee to draw a conclusion. That panel would not recommend any discipline, but instead determine what steps, if any, were necessary to uphold scientific standards.

That review would take between six weeks and six months, and the office would likely coordinate with the IG. It could defer to the IG entirely if, for example, it determined the case was too high profile to handle. Francesca Grifo, EPA’s top scientific integrity official, said at a public meeting last year her office takes formal allegations seriously. When it receives one, she said, her staff “goes a little crazy over it.” 

The regulatory rollback, finalized in September, also violated the scientific integrity policy by failing to use the highest quality science, the complainants said. EPA dismissed key research and scientific findings used during the 2015 process, they explained, while noting EPA’s own scientific advisory board criticized the WOTUS degulation as a “departure from recognized science.” 

EPA officials instructed employees to respond to public comments from a “policy or legal stance,” rather than a scientific one, the complaint alleged, which PEER said led to the stifling and oppression of science and experts’ opinions. The complainants said the rule was “not merely a difference in scientific opinion,” but instead amounted to “excluding and manipulating” established science. The integrity policy calls for the “highest quality” of science, but PEER suggested EPA instead suppressed it. 

Political appointees “dismissed [career scientists] with no justification,” the former and current workers said, and in the process politicized the agency’s analysis. 

“EPA has qualified expert scientists on staff at [headquarters] and across the country, but this expertise was suppressed and dismissed,” the complainants concluded. “Because of this, EPA’s career employees were not given the opportunity to do their best work or contribute their expertise to the development of the rule.” 

They cautioned a failure to act would set a dangerous precedent going forward. 

“Failing to take actions in this matter will show that EPA has abandoned all pretense of making science-based decisions, which is counter to its mission of protecting human health and the environment,” they said. 

Inquiries at EPA’s Science Integrity Office have spiked under the Trump administration. Employees at agencies like EPA, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have previously told Government Executive they are facing unprecedented interference from political leadership, including rollbacks of previous work and meddling in research. Scientists reported being left out of key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale. A Union of Concerned Scientists survey in 2018 found federal employees felt stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees, including 50% who said political considerations were hindering agencies' ability to make science-based decisions.