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EPA Staff Yanked From Alaska Summit as Trump Team Weighs In

Updated on
  • Alaska environment forum focusing on climate impacts to state
  • Critics see worrisome pattern in administration’s moves

Just three days before this week’s environment conference in Alaska, the top Environmental Protection Agency official in Anchorage called the organizer with some news: The agency had been instructed by the White House to slash the number of EPA staffers who could attend.

"We’ve never had this happen before," said Kurt Eilo, who has organized the Alaska Forum on the Environment for 19 years. The annual gathering brings together 1,800 people from native communities, government agencies and the public to discuss climate-related issues, including melting permafrost and risks to villages from rising seas.

There had been 34 EPA staffers registered; in the end, only half were allowed to go. The agency says the late change -- including scrapping the travel of some senior staff from Washington -- was about saving money for American taxpayers.

The travel change is one more sign of how President Donald Trump is taking a different approach to energy and environment. Federal workers and environmentalists say they are unnerved by what’s been done so far: from deleted web pages on climate change to cuts in staffing at the office in the Department of Energy responsible for science research.

Policy Mark

"It’s clearly wrong and counterproductive to restrict EPA staff from attending meetings pertinent to the agency’s mission," Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, said in an e-mail. "This raises important questions about government transparency and public access to important information."

Administration spokesmen say Trump is putting his mark on policy in ways he had promised. He blasted EPA regulations during the campaign, and has dubbed climate change a "hoax." The former head of his EPA transition team says funding for the agency should be cut by two thirds and Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan rescinded.

Since the inauguration, officials have rewritten EPA web pages describing how the U.S. is working with states and other countries to address climate change. An EPA page of "common questions" about climate change was initially slimmed down, with some queries ("How does carbon dioxide hurt us?" and "Is there a scientific consensus on climate change?") deleted altogether.

At the State Department, a "Climate Action Report" page that previously referenced how the U.S. is working "to deliver on our climate goals and to support our global partners" has disappeared. Visitors now see an error page instead.

Read More: Prominent Republicans Begin Push to Tax Carbon, Cut Regulations

At the Energy Department, most career technical employees were moved out of an office created under the Obama administration to oversee scientific research. Temporary political appointees moved in, none of them scientists. Energy Department spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler cast the staff changes as a normal part of the presidential transition.

“Consistent with each new administration, there is a change in leadership staff offices," Geisler said by e-mail. "Several employees have either gone back to their original offices or found new jobs within the Department."

For instance, while the EPA office of air quality can focus on administering a legally required renewable fuels program, the civil enforcement and criminal division can work separately to root out fraud within it.

The conference in Alaska shows how the changes may have a far-reaching impact. Scheduled topics include the effects of climate change on subsistence fishing and how to help coastal communities threatened by erosion and sea-level rise decide whether, and when, to relocate.

At a panel discussion Tuesday morning slated to include six EPA staff members discussing Alaska EPA grants, only two EPA officials were at the front of the room taking questions -- many of which focused on how the agency might be changing.

Travel Costs

Doug Ericksen, a spokesman for the EPA, attributed the travel curtailment to concerns about cost. "EPA travel costs were $44 million in 2016," he said in an e-mail. "This is one small example of how EPA will be working cooperatively with our staff and our outside partners to be better stewards of the American people’s money."

Eilo, executive director of the Alaska Forum, said the concern is that the senior EPA staffers from Seattle or Washington are responsible for the grant programs, or who set policy. EPA staffers were scheduled to appear on about 30 conference panels.

Staff from other federal agencies weren’t subject to any corresponding orders from Washington to pull back, according to Eilo. Employees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, State Department, Department of the Interior, Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Navy stayed on the agenda.

Researchers around the state are already worried about a pullback of federal support.

"I don’t have any hope that the state would pick up the slack," said Sue Mauger, science director for Cook Inletkeeper, a nonprofit in Homer that works to study and protect Alaska’s Cook Inlet watershed -- work funded in part by EPA grants. "There is really a rising panic."

— With assistance by Catherine Traywick

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