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‘Let us do our job’: Anger erupts over EPA’s apparent muzzling of scientists

Protesters gather Monday outside a meeting where a report on the Narragansett Bay, which included a focus on climate change, was to be released in Providence, R.I. The Environmental Protection Agency prohibited three scientists from speaking at the event. (Michelle R. Smith/AP)

The Trump administration’s decision to prevent government scientists from presenting climate change-related research at a conference in Rhode Island on Monday gave the event a suddenly high profile, with protesters outside, media inside and angry lawmakers and academics criticizing the move.

“This type of political interference, or scientific censorship — whatever you want to call it — is ill-advised and does a real disservice to the American public and public health,” Sen. Jack Reed (D), Rhode Island’s senior senator, said at an opening news conference for the State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed event in Providence. “We can debate the issues. We can have different viewpoints. But we should all be able to objectively examine the data and look at the evidence.”

Reed was joined Monday by the rest of the state’s congressional delegation, all of them Democrats, who took turns chastising the Environmental Protection Agency for instructing two of its scientists and one contractor not to speak at the conference Monday.

“The elephant in the room is, it’s almost impossible to imagine this sequence of events,” Rep. David N. Cicilline said at Monday’s event, calling the scientists involved deeply respected and the report itself thoroughly vetted. “The idea that we would deny the American people information — good, reliable facts and evidence to develop good public policy — is not only disappointing, it’s dangerous.”

Rep. Jim Langevin echoed that sentiment. “We have got to get beyond this point of stifling science, of muzzling good science, and speak to the facts as they are,” he said. “This shouldn’t be about a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s about protecting the planet.”

Outside, a small group of protesters gathered, wearing tape over their mouths and holding handmade signs. “Denial is not a policy,” read one. “Un-gag science,” read another.

EPA now requires political aide’s sign-off for agency grants, awards

The EPA has offered little explanation for the decision to prevent the scientists from participating, other than to say in a statement that they were allowed to attend the event but not present because “it is not an EPA conference.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 25 in Oxon Hill, Md. (Video: The Washington Post)

Monday’s conference marked the culmination of a three-year report on the status of Narragansett Bay, New England’s largest estuary, and the challenges it faces. Climate change features as a significant factor in the 500-page report, which evaluates 24 aspects of the bay and its larger watershed. But organizers said the broader point of Monday’s official release of the report was to highlight the improved water quality of the bay in recent decades — a success story they say is due in large part to the state’s partnership with the EPA and its scientists.

For about six years, the EPA has provided about $600,000 annually for each of more than two dozen national estuaries, including the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, the conference’s host.

The program’s director, Tom Borden, said that the head of the EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory Atlantic Ecology Division informed him Friday that the keynote speaker, division research ecologist Autumn Oczkowski, and another colleague in the lab, Rose Martin, would not be able to make presentations at the event.

“I was not given a clear reason why,” Borden said in an interview Sunday, adding that his team had worked closely with several of the agency’s scientists on protecting and restoring the bay. “It’s a terrific partnership to have EPA working with us.”

An EPA contractor who had contributed to two chapters of the report, Emily Shumchenia, also was told not to speak at the event. She and Martin were slated to take part in a panel titled “The Present and Future Biological Implications of Climate Change.”

The estuary report, which was subject to extensive peer review and public comment, charts how Narragansett Bay is becoming cleaner but also faces such challenges as nutrient runoff and climate change.

The public complaints Monday came not only from lawmakers, but also from those involved in the report and from veterans of the work of improving the quality of Narragansett Bay.

“The irony is an effort to squelch the participation from EPA, I think, just highlights the importance of science as the basis for our work and commits us even more vigorously to promoting science,” said Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

John King, a University of Rhode Island oceanography professor who chairs the science advisory committee of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, said the EPA’s decision had unwisely politicized the science underlying Monday’s report, and that it would have been “completely irresponsible” not to examine the potential effects that climate change will have on the bay.

“What I’d say to [EPA] Administrator [Scott] Pruitt is our job is to inform policy. Hopefully, it becomes good policy,” King told the assembled crowd. “Let us do our job, without fear of losing our jobs. I hope in that spirit, we can move forward from what has occurred.”

There are contaminants in some drinking water that the EPA cannot regulate. What does that mean for your health? (Video: Osman Malik, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)