On the campaign trail, Donald Trump vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form. We’re going to have little tidbits left, but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out.”
Those who have resigned or retired include some of the agency’s most experienced veterans, as well as young environmental experts who traditionally would have replaced them — stirring fears about brain drain at the EPA. The sheer number of departures also has prompted concerns over what sort of work is falling by the wayside, from enforcement investigations to environmental research.
According to data released under the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed by The Washington Post, at least 260 scientists, 185 “environmental protection specialists” and 106 engineers are gone.
Several veteran EPA employees, who have worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations, said the agency’s profound policy shifts under Trump hastened their departure.
“I felt it was time to leave given the irresponsible, ongoing diminishment of agency resources, which has recklessly endangered our ability to execute our responsibilities as public servants,” said Ann Williamson, a scientist and longtime supervisor in the EPA’s Region 10 Seattle office.
She left in March after 33 years at the agency, exasperated by having to plan how her office would implement President Trump’s proposed cuts and weary of what she viewed as the administration’s refusal to make policy decisions based on evidence. “I did not want to any longer be any part of this administration’s nonsense,” she said.
In a statement Friday, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he was focused on right-sizing the EPA, which Republicans have argued overreached under President Barack Obama, burdening industry with regulations such as those focused on climate change.
“With nearly half of our employees eligible to retire in the next five years, my priority is recruiting and maintaining the right staff, the right people for our mission, rather than total full-time employees,” he said.
Congress has so far maintained the EPA’s budget at just more than $8 billion, and while current proposals could shrink that amount, any cuts are likely to be modest.
“The Trump administration comes in and goes way, way beyond what the budget requires,” said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and whose district is home to a major EPA research center. Price said multiple constituents have told him that working at the EPA has become “intolerable” after seeing their findings sidelined.
“It is profoundly demoralizing, and I think, profoundly damaging in terms of the agency’s mission,” he said.
The EPA is not alone in shedding personnel under Trump, despite the fact that Congress passed a $1.3 trillion budget bill in March that boosted both military and domestic spending.
The State Department’s total number of permanent employees, for instance, fell 6.4 percent between Trump’s inauguration and March 2018, according to federal records, while the Education Department declined 9.4 percent during that time.
Part of the drop stems from a government-wide hiring freeze Trump imposed after his inauguration, which lasted nearly three months. The president has continued to press for a leaner federal payroll, asking Congress recently to withhold pay raises for federal workers in 2019.
In a few instances, Trump’s deputies are trying to fill the widespread vacancies in their department’s ranks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently began trying to staff the many senior positions that remained empty under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. Meanwhile, Veterans Affairs is eager to hire doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to fill thousands of vacancies.
But at the EPA, it is largely a case of career staff members headed for the exits. Hundreds of employees accepted buyouts last summer, and records show that nearly a quarter of the agency’s remaining 13,758 employees are now eligible to retire. At its peak in the late 1990s, the EPA employed more than 18,000 people.
Christopher Zarba, who retired in February after serving as director of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, disagreed with former administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision last year to overhaul the board’s membership. Zarba, a 38-year EPA veteran, said that for many staff members, a belief in the agency’s mission had compensated for less-than-ideal working conditions.
“That is the crazy glue that holds the place together, the idea, ‘This is important. We’re making a difference,’ ” he said. “And when that crazy glue begins to fall apart, things change.”
That sentiment played a role in Betsy Smith’s decision to retire in June after 20 years with the EPA’s Office of Research and Development — a department singled out for massive cuts in Trump’s first budget proposal. She said officials largely shelved a project she was leading that aimed to help port communities deal with climate change and other environmental challenges.
“It’s really awful to feel like you don’t have any role to play, that there’s not any interest in the work you’re doing,” said Smith, 62. “My feeling was I could do better work to protect the environment outside the EPA.”
Troy Hottle, 32, arrived at the EPA in early 2016 as a research fellow after getting his doctorate in sustainable engineering at Arizona State University. He expected to forge a career there, as others like him had historically done.
“I really felt good about what I was doing and who I was working with,” Hottle said.
But a year and a half into his time at the EPA, the future hiring prospects within the Office of Research and Development seemed uncertain at best. The career path he had “spent half a lifetime” pursuing, he said, no longer looked so appealing.
Last September, when he got a job offer from a national environmental consulting firm, he decided to make the leap.
After his arrival, Pruitt quickly gained a reputation for excluding career officials from key decisions and showing little regard for the agency’s own research. He also took the president’s desire to scale back the EPA to heart, repeatedly boasting about how a buyout and early retirement push last year reduced the agency workforce.
Other conservatives also have cheered the whittling down of EPA’s size and reach as appropriate and overdue.
“It doesn’t take a bigger bureaucracy to clean our environment,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing the EPA’s budget, said in a statement. “A lean and efficient workforce at the EPA is a win for taxpayers and the environment by allowing more funding to go towards efforts to clean our water and air.” The agency also underwent buyouts during the Obama administration, but EPA still had about 15,000 employees when he left office.
EPA officials last year launched a reorganization aimed at streamlining the agency, and Wheeler has struck a more measured tone as he has pursued it. A former EPA staff member himself, he praised career employees in a speech after his appointment, saying his “instincts” would be to defend their work and sympathizing about the stress that comes with the changes the agency is undergoing.
On Thursday, he sent an agencywide email announcing that regional offices would be redesigned to mirror the structure at headquarters.
As the departures continue, some EPA workers have voiced worries that the administration’s refusal to fill vacancies with younger employees has effectively blocked the pipeline of new talent.
Dan Costa, 70, joined the EPA 34 years ago as a staff scientist, rising through the ranks to direct its national air, climate and energy research program in 2011. He stepped down from that post in January, and he said he spent part of the last year counseling younger researchers who saw no possibility of replicating his career path.
“I had young people come into my office, close the door and say, ‘What should I do? Should I be looking for a job somewhere else?’ ” he said. He said he advised one young man to “test the waters” given the current regime. “These people are like termites, gnawing at the foundation.”
Multiple current and former employees also say that the exodus at the EPA has left important work falling through the cracks. In Chicago, for instance, a civil investigator responsible for probing who is responsible for Superfund sites left earlier this year and has yet to be replaced, said Mike Mikulka, president of the local union that represents EPA employees.
“You can talk all you want, but your actions speak far louder,” he said, noting that Pruitt had held up Superfund as a top priority during his tenure. “What’s happening is that the lowest priority work just doesn’t get done. And some of that work is really critical.”
One of the EPA divisions hardest hit by staff cuts is the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, whose numbers dipped 15.7 percent between January 2017 and August 2018. Several experts said that any cuts to that division have a major impact because the vast majority of its budget comes from personnel costs rather than grants or other expenditures.
Granta Nakayama, who headed the office from 2005 to 2009, said that it couldn’t sustain that deep a staffing cut without curtailing some of its operations.
“If you don’t have people to enforce the regulations, you’re not going to get enforcement, and you’re not going to get compliance,” said Nakayama, now a partner at the law firm King & Spalding. “If you don’t have boots on the ground, it doesn’t happen.”