This Land: Environmental Protection Agency Workers Are Demoralized For A Reason

Imagine being one of the employees at whatever agency preceded the Ministry of Truth before Big Brother took over in the novel 1984. Your job at that agency was actually to tell the truth, to get out genuine, useful information to the public you served.

Then Big Brother takes over, and your job becomes fabricating propaganda to serve Big Brother’s agenda, however it shifts from day to day.

It would be a jarring transition, and many employees — probably the best, most committed employees — wouldn’t be able to do it.

Which brings us to today’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which, under President Donald Trump is as misnamed as Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Employees at the EPA watched in horror as Trump nominated and the Republican Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt to lead the agency. Some risked their jobs by protesting the nomination.

Pruitt, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, devoted himself to suing the EPA and attempting to block any environmental protection measure that inconvenienced his generous friends in the fossil fuel industry.

Suddenly, Pruitt was in charge, a climate-change denier openly hostile to the EPA’s mission who during his confirmation hearings couldn’t name a single EPA regulation he supported. When Pruitt was sworn in, it was a brave new world for EPA employees who walked in to find that war is peace; freedom is slavery, and ignorance is peace.

When Trump signed an executive order he hoped would roll back many of President Obama’s climate change policies, he came to the EPA to do it. Pruitt sent out an agency-wide email that morning noting “Our Big Day Today,” not understanding or caring that, to most EPA employees, the day was nothing to celebrate.

As Mike Cox, a climate change adviser for EPA’s Region 10, said in a blistering letter sent to Pruitt on the day he retired, “We were frankly insulted that the President would come to EPA to announce that he is overturning the work to battle the most urgent environmental problem of our generation — climate change. It was beyond comprehension that an Administration could be so arrogant and callous.”

Cox said EPA staffers wondered who the “our” was referring to in the email. “Was it the EPA career staff that should be jubilant the President came to poke a finger in our eye (or as many people indicated to give us the finger)? Was it the fossil fuel industry that will benefit most from the President’s action? Or was it the coal miners present at the event who are being given false hope their jobs are coming back?”

In his letter to Pruitt, Cox warned about the low morale of EPA career staff. “I have worked under six Administrations with political appointees leading EPA from both parties,” he wrote. “This is the first time I remember staff openly dismissing and mocking the environmental policies of an Administration and by extension you, the individual selected to implement the policies. The message we are hearing is that this Administration is working to dismantle the EPA and its staff as quickly as possible.”

Certainly, the priority seems to be to undo any environmental good President Obama accomplished in his eight years. In early February, Congress passed legislation reversing Obama’s stream protection rule, which was eight years in the making. Trump signed the legislation, reversing the improved water quality standards of the rule.

Recently, the EPA was sued for reversing its previous recommendation to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to brain damage in children. Pruitt ordered the reversal over the objections of EPA scientists. The EPA is also working to reverse policies mandating efficiency standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.

Trump has proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by nearly a third, blunting its ability to enforce environmental laws and regulations, eliminating Superfund site cleanups and other restoration projects around the nation and cutting programs to help the trucking industry save fuel and reduce emissions.

Pruitt and Trump want to end the EPA’s mission and make its name as contradictory as Orwell’s Ministry of Peace. Is it any wonder employees there are disheartened? This is not the job they signed up for, nor is it what most Americans want, as Cox pointed out in his letter to Pruitt.

“The policies this Administration is advancing are contrary to what the majority of the American people, who pay our salaries, want EPA to accomplish, which are to ensure the air their children breath is safe; the land they live, play, and hunt on to be free of toxic chemicals; and the water they drink, the lakes they swim in, and the rivers they fish in to be clean,” Cox wrote.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to protect the environment, for all of us. Under Trump and Pruitt, that is no longer the mission, and no amount of doublespeak can hide that unfortunate fact.

Radmacher is former editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette and The Roanoke Times. This Land is a weekly column produced by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.   

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