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March for Science demonstrator holds sign denouncing Trump

A former Environmental Protection Agency official says Scott Pruitt, Trump's EPA appointee, pressures agency staffers to consider polluters' demands to rescind environmental regulations. Her comments align with those of other federal scientists from multiple agencies. (Photo: Mark Dixon/Flickr/cc)

Trump's War on Science Forces Federal Officials to Consider Polluters' Demands

"The administration is seriously weakening EPA's mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach."

Jessica Corbett

Following Elizabeth "Betsy" Southerland's viral resignation letter (pdf), in which the longtime Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official lambasted the Trump administration's troubling deregulatory agenda, she is now sharing details about how the agency's staffers spend their days addressing polluters' demands to rescind environmental regulations.

As Sharon Lerner reported, based on Southerland's claims that EPA staffers are "now devoted to regulatory rollback based on the requests from industry," and an agency spreadsheet obtained by The Intercept:

Companies and trade groups have directly asked EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for some changes. Other requests have come in through public comments in response to Executive Order 13777, which the White House issued in February. That executive order directed federal agencies including the EPA to suggest regulations to be changed, repealed, or replaced.

The overwhelming majority of the more than 467,000 public responses to the EPA about the executive order urged the agency not to roll back environmental regulations.... But Southerland said that a working group headed by EPA associate administrator Samantha Dravis and the agency's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson—both of whom were appointed by Scott Pruitt—cherry-picked industry comments calling for rollback and submitted them to scientists and other career employees at the agency.

"They pulled out the ones from the industry—the coal, electric power, oil and natural gas areas, just them—and sent them around and asked us to respond within one day about whether we agreed with the request for a repeal," Southerland told Lerner.

The former official also said agency staffers are rejecting industry demands, because there's no new scientific evidence or data to support the rollbacks, but she also warned about the Trump and Pruitt's continued willingness to push for polluters' proposals.

"There is no question the administration is seriously weakening EPA's mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach and defunding implementation of environmental programs."
—Betsy Southerland, former EPA official

"There is no question," Southerland told the Washington Post, "the administration is seriously weakening EPA's mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach and defunding implementation of environmental programs."

As the Post noted, "Southerland's resignation came during the same month that a Union of Concerned Scientists report said Trump is creating a 'hostile environment for scientific staff.'"

The UCS report detailed how the Trump administration's war on science encompasses the EPA, but also extends to other federal agencies—such as the Department of Interior, where dozens of top climate scientists have been reassigned "for telling the truth," according to The Nation.

"A clear pattern has emerged over the first six months of the Trump presidency: multiple actions by his administration are eroding the ability of science, facts, and evidence to inform policy decisions, leaving us more vulnerable to threats to public health and the environment," the UCS report stated.

"The Trump administration is attempting to delegitimize science, it is giving industries more ability to influence how and what science is used in policymaking, and it is creating a hostile environment for federal agency scientists who serve the public," the report also said, aligned with Southerland's claims.

Southerland, who spent three of her four-decade career working on the agency's Superfund and Water programs, said she circulated her resignation letter because "I felt it was my civic duty to explain the impact of this administration's policies on public health and safety."

Outlining the administration's actions with regard to the EPA so far, Southerland, wrote (pdf):

The major budget cuts to EPA, state and tribal environmental programs and the potential repeal of many existing regulations and science an industry deregulation approach based on abandonment of the polluter pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes and regulations.

She also expressed concern for the future, noting that "environmental catastrophes have often occurred when there was a decision to roll the dice and achieve a short-term gain at the risk of disastrous long-term costs," pointing to Hurricane Katrina and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan as examples.

"The best case for our children and grandchildren is that they will pay the polluters' bills through increased state taxes, new user fees, and higher water and sewer bills," she wrote. "The worst case is that they will have to live with increased public health and safety risks and a degraded environment."

Southerland's resignation letter was published by the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Kyla Bennett, PEER's New England director—and a scientist and attorney who formerly worked with the EPA—said: "In Pruitt's EPA it is hard to identify even a single action to better protect the environment…. Increasingly, principled professionals, who have proudly served administrations from both parties, are under orders to betray, rather than serve, the public interest by remaining at EPA."

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