The Fight to Clean Up the EPA

Trump nearly broke the EPA. Can the Biden administration repair the damage?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. The U.S. Senate is a day away from starting former President Donald Trumps second impeachment trial with many of the details still to be ironed out even as the outcome -- an acquittal -- is all but assured. Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Environmental Protection Agency building in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 8, 2021. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency recently acknowledged what was plain to most outside observers throughout the Trump era. “Over the past few years, I am aware that political interference sometimes compromised the integrity of our science,” Michal Freedhoff, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, wrote it in a March 10 internal memo. Freedhoff pointed to a 2020 risk evaluation of the chemical trichlorethylene, which she said was altered at the direction of White House staff; the 2018 decision to re-register the carcinogenic pesticide dicamba, for which senior leadership directed career staff to discount scientific information on negative impacts; and an assessment of the toxic compound PFBS, which the EPA released on Trump’s last day in office and Freedhoff described as containing conclusions that were “the product of biased political interference.”

“That interference undermined the agency’s scientific integrity policy and eroded the trust that the American public has in EPA, the quality of our science, and our ability to protect their health and the environment,” Freedhoff wrote.

The internal reckoning within the EPA is part of the Biden administration’s effort to recommit to scientific integrity throughout the federal government. On his first day in office, the new president issued an executive order in which he pledged “to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides.” A week later, the White House issued a memorandum that laid out a plan for how federal agencies should go about restoring trust in scientific integrity.


Did the White House Stop the EPA From Regulating PFAS?

The pledges might come across as banal platitudes if they didn’t directly follow four years in which political and corporate interests routinely prevailed over law and expert knowledge. Science took a hit throughout the federal government: at the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Energy, and the Forest Service, and of course in the Oval Office, where Trump altered hurricane forecasts with a Sharpie and hyped ineffective coronavirus drugs. But the EPA weathered the last administration particularly badly, as industry insiders oversaw the disappearance of information about climate change from the agency’s website; the reversal of the proposed ban on the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos; the altering of scientific documents to downplay cancer risks; the invitation of companies by the agency to remove evidence of carcinogenic pollution from the public record; and a wide range of devastating rollbacks hugely consequential to the environment and human health.

Michael Regan, the recently appointed administrator, has already made it clear that he is intent on righting the ship. “Scientific integrity is one of EPA’s foundational values,” Regan declared in March, as he dismissed more than 40 advisers to the agency’s Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which Trump had stacked with industry operatives.

Francesca Grifo, a scientist who has served as the EPA’s top scientific integrity officer since 2013, is heading up the delicate work of rooting out the political interference in the agency. “We are on a reset,” Grifo told The Intercept, going on to describe a process of informing staff members about the agency’s science integrity policy, encouraging them to speak out about violations of it, and identifying gaps that left the agency vulnerable to an administration that didn’t agree with it. “We will be seeking to close the loopholes,” said Grifo. “Everything’s on the table.”

But even as the EPA begins this sweeping effort, some staff and environmental experts are already worrying that the agency’s overhaul won’t go far enough to successfully quash the powerful industries that have corrupted the agency during and well before the Trump administration.

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) administrator Michael Regan speaks during a press conference in the Langdon neighborhood of North East on April 15, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a press conference in the Langdon neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on April 15, 2021.

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Naming Names

The EPA has already begun to correct the scientific record marred under Trump. Earlier this month, it issued an updated toxicity assessment for PFBS, the PFAS compound that was the subject of the Trump administration’s flawed assessment earlier this year and had been awaiting assessment for two years before that. But agency officials have not named or held accountable the people responsible for interference with that assessment or any of the other breaches of scientific integrity it has already identified. Nor does the agency intend to punish the employees and former employees who undermined the agency’s operations, according to Grifo.

“We’re not playing a blame game,” Grifo told The Intercept. “The way our scientific integrity policy is written is that specific disciplinary accountability is not in our lane. So our work is to figure out what happened and safeguard the science.”

But the choice not to hold wrongdoers accountable leaves the agency vulnerable to ongoing corruption, according to several science and good government experts interviewed for this article. “The science integrity policy itself is pretty good,” said Erik Olson, an attorney who began his career at the EPA and now directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s advocacy initiatives on health, food, and agriculture. “But if you have routine violations of the policy with no known consequences, it means that it’s a paper tiger that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Without consequences, the scientific integrity policy is essentially greenwashing.

Bill Hirzy, a chemist who worked at EPA from 1981 to 2008, agreed on the importance of accountability. “There should be disciplinary action of some meaningful sort — employment consequences, demotions, suspensions,” said Hirzy, who helped author one of the agency’s first science integrity policies. Without consequences, the scientific integrity policy is essentially greenwashing, said Hirzy. “It looks really good on paper. And when they go to congressional hearings, they can trot it out. But when bad stuff is happening in the agency, there is no way for them to remedy it.”

Hirzy pointed to a provision within the policy that specifies that “it does not create any obligation, right or benefit for any member of the public, substantive or procedural, enforceable by law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees or agents, or any other person.”

“That means you can’t grieve it. And you can’t bring any action against management for violations of it,” he said. “That’s the poison pill.” Hirzy, who served as an officer of EPA Headquarters Professionals’ union for 20 years, noted that none of the five unions that represent EPA employees were consulted in drafting the current policy or have a role in addressing complaints lodged through it.

Grifo said that the EPA’s inspector general undertakes some investigations. But that office focuses on criminal cases of waste, fraud, and abuse and has only undertaken a very limited number of employee integrity cases in recent years.

An EPA scientist who filed a scientific integrity complaint with Grifo’s office said they, too, feel it is imperative to hold corrupt actors responsible. “There have been multiple recent meeting about scientific integrity recently, and over and over they say that they are not here to punish,” they said. “The word ‘punish’ always comes up here as, ‘We are not here to punish.’ We hear that they want to create a new culture moving forward. But if there are absolutely no consequences when breaches of scientific integrity happen, then the policy doesn’t have any effect.”

The scientist, who spoke with The Intercept on the condition that their name, division, and subject of research were not mentioned, is one of hundreds of EPA staff members who reached out to Grifo’s office during the Trump administration. According to slides Grifo presented to EPA staff on March 31, 73 people sought help from her office in 2020 alone: triple the number that queried the office in 2016. The biggest proportion of those, 64 percent, complained of interference. Others alleged suppression, manipulation of scientific evidence, and alteration of scientific products. The number of complaints that involved the office of the administrator also shot up under President Donald Trump. According to the presentation, the office was processing 25 active complaints as of March 31.

I Can’t Sleep At Night

While the office works through that backlog, the people who have filed the outstanding complaints can be under extraordinary pressures.

“I can’t sleep at night,” said the EPA staffer who filed the scientific integrity allegation now pending with Grifo’s office. “I am under so much mental strain, I couldn’t get out of bed for a while.” The scientist, who works on an issue of significance to public health, described witnessing their superior altering their work in a way that they believe could result in widespread health consequences. “I lie awake at night thinking about the impact this is going to have on the American public.”

“I lie awake at night thinking about the impact this is going to have on the American public.”

That unnamed scientist isn’t suffering alone, according to Kyla Bennett, director of science policy at PEER, an organization that supports environmental whistleblowers. “Some of my clients who are involved in the scientific integrity process regularly call me sobbing on the phone because they’re so afraid that their inability to stop the agency from doing what it’s doing will harm the American public,” she said.

While those who committed the violations aren’t punished, the scientist said that some of the people they know who have called out improprieties at the agency have faced unofficial punishment. “Everyone I know or talk to who has filed a complaint has been retaliated against,” they said, “and, so far, no one who has done the retaliation has been held accountable.”

It’s unclear how many EPA employees have faced retribution, but a 2020 survey of 181 staff members of the agency’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics suggests that the problem is rampant. Only 41 percent surveyed agreed with the statement that “I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” And a mere 18 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “My organization’s senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.”

Big Money

Even though the agency is now in the hands of an administrator and president who have pledged to protect science, decisions about how to handle allegations may fall to staff who aren’t as committed to that value. Since its inception, the agency has struggled against the influence of the wealthy and powerful industries it regulates, which can reward former employees while they’re at the EPA and provide them with lucrative contracts and jobs after they leave the agency. And the problem extends beyond the political appointees, who have been the focus of most of the media attention of corruption within EPA in recent years.

“It’s extremely difficult to weed out the influence of the regulated industries,” said Hirzy, who described how the resources of energy and chemical companies have influenced employees at all levels within the agency. “The staff person wants to become a branch chief, the branch chief wants to become a division director, and the division directors want to be office directors and then assistant administrators. From there, they go to industry,” he said.

And yet the current policy deputizes office directors and deputy directors to handle scientific integrity complaints. “There is a conflict there,” said Amer Al-Mudallal, an EPA chemist and president of Chapter 280 of the National Treasury Employees Union. “It’s not in the interest of the senior managers to bring these violations to the committee.”

The scientist who filed an integrity complaint also worried about assigning managers any role in addressing scientific integrity issues. “Managers are not just complicit in integrity violations, but in some cases they are the agents of the integrity violations,” they said.

Asked about involving division heads in the scientific integrity process, Grifo said that if they’re worried about speaking with their own managers, staff members can reach out to her directly or to managers who work in other divisions of the agency.

The Cleanup

In the face of these pressures, EPA scientists left the agency in droves during the Trump administration. The unnamed scientist said they thought about quitting too: “We were at a point as a group where we would either leave our colleagues in the dust to be abused and ground down or to try to do something about it.”

Ultimately, they decided to stay and file the science integrity complaint. While the pressures at work have remained in the months since, they still hope to stay at the EPA. “I feel a sense of responsibility that as long as I am able to put up with it, I don’t want to abandon my colleagues and the American people.”

Grifo, too, considered — and reconsidered — leaving during the Trump years, when EPA management sidelined and silenced her office. The muzzling was so severe that, in 2019, when House members invited her to speak at a hearing on a bill that would have given scientific integrity protections the force of law, Grifo wasn’t even allowed to testify. (Instead the EPA sent a former Trump campaign worker who has ties to a Las Vegas casino and no science background.)

“Do I stay being partially effective? Or do I go and do something else? Or do I go and end up on the front page of the Times?” Grifo said of her thought process during those years. It was the hope of helping the agency recover that led her and the EPA’s science adviser, with whom she works closely, to stay. “We wanted to be around for the cleanup,” she said.

Now, as that cleanup process gets underway, many within the agency’s ranks are desperately hoping it will strengthen protections to the point that EPA can withstand industry pressures not just during the Biden administration but under any administration that comes into the White House.

“My fear is that it’s going to be back to square one as soon as we get another bad president in office,” said the unnamed scientist, who is still awaiting a response to their complaint. “Unless we get some real change, we’ll go right back to the dark ages.”

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