While EPA has consistently pushed to slash its own workforce, administrator says he wants to prevent a mass exodus.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency sought to brush aside allegations that his agency is sidelining science during a congressional hearing on Thursday and said he has personally intervened to help grow a more robust scientific workforce.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler repeatedly came under fire during the House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing for an array of decisions that lawmakers said undermined the agency’s mission, but Wheeler consistently pushed back and said they would protect the environment, public health and businesses of all sizes. The administrator also defended his treatment of the EPA workforce, saying he consistently relies “on their work and expertise.”
“Every day, our scientists produce information critical to protecting human health and the environment,” Wheeler said, adding he has been impressed by the “rigor, integrity and dedication of our career scientists and staff.”
EPA under the Trump administration has faced criticism from environmental and good-government groups who have accused the agency of silencing employees, interfering with science and rolling back regulations at the behest of industry. The agency has repeatedly asked Congress to dramatically slash its budget and workforce, saying it is taking a more narrow approach to enforcement after years of overreach.
Still, Wheeler expressed concern about the “brain drain” occurring at the agency. He said he was “absolutely” worried about an exodus of career scientists leading to a decades-low staffing level, noting 40% of the EPA workforce is eligible to retire within the next five years. He said he personally participated in the process for the recent hiring of a new human resources manager, calling it an unusual step for the EPA administrator.
In its fiscal 2020 budget, EPA requested funding to offer employees buyouts and early retirement incentives. It is also in the process of consolidating several of its regional laboratories, which Wheeler also defended in the face of congressional opposition.
The closures could “lead to significant brain drain as many employees may not be able to relocate,” said Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, whose district includes a Houston-based lab that EPA is moving to Oklahoma.
Wheeler said all of the relocations—EPA closed a Las Vegas lab last year—are part of an effort to shed leased office space in favor of buildings owned by the agency or the General Services Administration. He also vowed that the agency would not seek to relocate anyone out of the Washington, D.C., area.
The administrator faced criticism for EPA's proposal to ban the use of “secret science,” which prohibited agency employees from using data that is not fully available to the public. Critics of the plan have argued that is often the case due to privacy concerns of individuals in testing and surveys. Wheeler promised to issue a supplementary rule next year in response to the thousands of public comments EPA received.
“This is an attack on the role of science at EPA,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., warning it could create a “chilling impact” at the agency and perpetuates an “incorrect notion” that EPA relies on hidden data.
Wheeler pushed back, saying the proposed changes would lead to increased transparency.
“If we put that science out there for everyone to see, there will be more acceptance of our regulatory decisions,” he said. “I believe we should be transparent in everything that we do.”