By John O’Grady
Donald Trump and EPA chief Scott Pruitt believe they are on track to eliminate half the scientists and engineers working at The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 2020. And, they’re going to endanger our public health in the most tedious, non-controversial way possible by using a little known bureaucratic device called “workforce reshaping.”
Earlier this week, EPA announced that its National Exposure Research Laboratory in Las Vegas would close. Fifty employees will have to either relocate to another EPA office in Cincinnati, Ohio or Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, or leave EPA altogether by Sept. 30, 2018.
The closing could lead to many more scientists’ departures, none of which will be replaced. But Pruitt is not planning dramatic shuttering of big offices to reduce EPA. Rather, this administration will embark on “workforce reshaping” to weaken and reform EPA to rubble.
Ever since embarking on his campaign, Trump has saved his most virulent attacks for the EPA, paradoxically one of the most effective federal agencies of the past 50 years. At first, Trump did not even know the correct name of the agency he sought to condemn, telling Sean Hannity that “The Department of Environmental…I mean, the D-E-P is killing us environmentally, it’s just killing our businesses.”
In 1972, EPA took on the mission of cleaning up polluted rivers that had famously caught fire and iconic American skylines that were concealed by smog. With bipartisan support, EPA adopted standards for clean air and clean water, and then boldly enforced them.
The stereotypes about federal “bureaucrats” standing around collecting paychecks do not apply to EPA scientists — their track record of getting busy to protect public health and the environment is a matter of public record. The Agency is a victim of its own effectiveness, putting it in the crosshairs of those it regulated. With industry hacks now in charge, they are destroying it from within.
Trump sowed the seeds of his plan to dismantle EPA’s staff on his very first day in office issuing a freeze on all federal hiring. This stoppage has not been effectively lifted for EPA and is a crucial part of Trump’s plans. Because along with rolling back regulatory protections, the administration plans to assault EPA by drastically reducing the numbers of the scientists and engineers protecting the American people.
Swiftly, reforms in the “workforce reshaping” started in May 2017 when EPA began discarding staff by offering $25,000 buyouts to those at or near retirement age. Although 372 employees took the incentive, EPA did not replace them. All told, over 700 personnel have left EPA since Trump took office, and virtually no one has been hired to replenish their roles.
Worse, when EPA revealed to the Washington Examiner that it planned to reduce its’ staff by half by 2020, the plan was more breathtaking in its scope and ambition than most had previously imagined.
Federal austerity, attrition and hiring freezes throughout the Obama years had kept EPA staff to historic minimums but had also aged its staff as 47 percent of EPA workers would be eligible to retire with full benefits in five years. EPA’s plan is simple. Instead of cutting staff outright, which Congress had so far resisted, and which is very expensive to implement, EPA would continue to lure eligible staff into retirement with even more bonuses than in 2017.
A Feb. 8, report by Inside EPA confirmed the agency’s plans to severely cut staff. At Region 9, management demanded a 10 percent staff cut for fiscal 2018, even though Congress raised domestic spending to levels not seen during the Obama administration.
To accomplish these cuts, $79 million retirement incentives were targeted in the House and Senate version of the agency’s 2018 budget for early retirement actions. To put that in perspective, in 2014, the agency offered buyouts totaling $16.2 million and 456 people left the agency. If the agency spends all $79 million reserved for retirement incentives in 2018, it could result in over 2,000 additional federal employees leaving the agency.
The administration’s fiscal 2019 budget continues along this theme, including another $35 million in early retirement incentives that could lead to the departures of an additional 1,000 employees. Every plan and budget put forth by this administration for EPA opts to cut staff, aligning with the turn to the right that big Republican donors, such as the infamous science-denying Koch Bros., have wanted.
Such an overarching plan to force staff out through retirement will only work by creating toxic workplaces boiling over and resulting in a hostile work environment. For the dedicated “true believers” who make-up the EPA, Trump’s unrelenting assault on their achievements is taking its toll.
As early as April 4, 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that the “dim outlook at the EPA is weighing heavily on its 15,000 scientists, engineers, investigators and other employees, many of whom perceive their life’s work to be under assault from within.” Most staffers now believe the Trump administration is purposely exhausting EPA of its best scientists and experts, dropping morale to the gutter and incentivizing employees to leave, fast.
The key to stopping further slides in EPA’s effectiveness will be if Congress ceases to authorize this administration to “reshape” the “workforce” by including millions of dollars in incentives for retirement while continuing to allow the agency to maintain its effective hiring freeze.
Let’s be frank. Losing essential EPA staff means fewer inspectors checking smoke stacks for smog, scientists not sampling nitrogen and phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay, technicians absent to analyze lead and copper in communities’ drinking water, biologists unable to monitor for aquatic life in Lake Erie’s oxygen-depleted dead zone. The environmental cops on the beat will soon be gone.
Last month, EPA career staff once again identified crucial gaps in science and engineering positions. None have been filled. It’s clear that Pruitt is hiring — but only for positions in his security detail.
Scientists and engineers are not wanted.
Only Congress stands in the way of Trump’s plan to reduce by half the scientists and engineers keeping us safe. The next month will be crucial. Congress must stop the bleeding of technical experts at EPA. Congress must pay specific attention to how it appropriates the funds allocated to EPA in the budget. It must resist requests to reduce agency staff. Congress must not endorse “workforce reshaping” — a euphemism for stripping the agency of scientists and endangering public health in the process.