When Mike Cox quit, he did so with gusto.
After 25 years, he retired last week from the Environmental Protection Agency with a tough message for the boss, Administrator Scott Pruitt.
“I, along with many EPA staff, are becoming increasing alarmed about the direction of EPA under your leadership … ” Cox said in a 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 was a climate change adviser for EPA’s Region 10, covering Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, he’s been very involved in Bainbridge, Wash., coaching youth sports and serving on local boards and commissions. For two decades, the fit 60-year-old rode his bike eight miles to the ferry, then uphill to his Seattle office.
He can get away with being so blunt because he sent the letter on his last day on the job. Yet his views reflect the disgust and frustration among the agency employees he left behind. Interviews with staffers point to a workforce demoralized by President Trump’s and Pruitt’s statements that conflict with science. They are worried about a new, backward direction for the agency and nervous about proposed, drastic budget cuts.
They are also fearful.
Twice during an hour of interviews for this column, EPA workers in different parts of the country asked to communicate with me by using encryption software. All who spoke feared retaliation and would not allow their names to be used.
“It is pretty bleak,” one staffer, an environmental engineer, said about employee morale.
“It’s in the dumps,” said another.
“Pretty much everybody is updating their resumes. It’s grim,” added a third.
They and their colleagues are dedicated to EPA’s mission to “protect human health and the environment.” They fear that Trump administration policies will do the opposite.
Like Cox, they are upset with an administrator casting doubt on the central role carbon dioxide plays in climate change. “You will continue to undermine your credibility and integrity with EPA staff, and the majority of the public, if you continue to question this basic science of climate change,” Cox wrote.
Of course, Pruitt’s position is no surprise for a man who was appointed by a president who called climate change a hoax.
To see the effects of climate change, Cox invited Pruitt to “visit the Pacific Northwest and see where the streams are too warm for our salmon to survive in the summer; visit the oyster farmers in Puget Sound whose stocks are being altered from the oceans becoming more acidic; talk to the ski area operators who are seeing less snowpack and worrying about their future; and talk to the farmers in Eastern Washington who are struggling to have enough water to grow their crops and water their cattle. The changes I am referencing are not impacts projected for the future, but are happening now.”
Trump’s proposed EPA budget is the vehicle for his science-doubting policies.
His 31 percent budget decrease would be the largest among agencies not eliminated. It would result in layoffs for 25 percent of the staff and cuts to 50 EPA programs, The Washington Post reported Sunday. Lost would be more than half the positions in the division testing automaker fuel efficiency claims.
An EPA environmental engineer is “almost hopeful” for a partial government shutdown, which could happen after April 28 if Congress doesn’t approve a spending measure, because “it’s better than getting axed right away.”
Cox challenged the “indefensible budget cuts,” asking Pruitt “why resources for Alaska Native Villages are being reduced when they are presented with some of the most difficult conditions in the country; why you would eliminate funds for the protection and restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem which provides thousands of jobs and revenue for Washington State; and why you would reduce funds for a program that retrofits school buses to reduce diesel emission exhaust inhaled by our most vulnerable population — children.”
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment on Cox’s letter, but Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, did.
Now that Trump is moving toward “radically downsizing the EPA,” Ebell said, “employees who are opposed to the Trump Administration’s agenda are either going to conduct themselves as professional civil servants or find other employment or retire or be terminated. I would be more sympathetic if they had ever expressed any concern for the people whose jobs have been destroyed by EPA’s regulatory rampage.”
They are conducting themselves as the professional civil servants they are, even as they are distressed over the direction of the agency. They complain quietly, sometimes openly, but without rebellion.
“We still have to go on until they shut the lights off,” said one EPA manager. “People here are committed to the mission and not necessarily to a paycheck.”
Coping takes different forms.
Black humor and burying themselves in a project’s scientific minutia will work for some.
“For the rest of us,” added one longtime regional staffer, “there probably will be a significant rise in alcoholism.”
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