Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland loved her work at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Then Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt came along.
Now Southerland, who was director of science and technology in the agency’s Office of Water, said she is “heartbroken about the impact of the new administration on environmental protection in this country.”
After 30 years at EPA, her last day was Monday.
Southerland becomes the latest in a series of protesting federal scientists. She denounced the destructive environmental policies of President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt. Family concerns played an important role in her decision to leave, but she also can’t stomach the current direction of an agency that answers to a White House wallowing in disarray and disgrace.
In a statement planned for release Tuesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and during email and phone interviews with The Washington Post, she talked about how “EPA has been the guiding light to make the ‘right thing’ happen for the greater good, including public health and safety.”
But with Trump and Pruitt in charge, “that will not be possible under the current administration.”
Their attack on environmental protections marks the “abandonment of the polluter pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes and regulations,” she said. “The best case for our children and grandchildren is that they will pay the polluters bills through increased state taxes, new user fees, and higher water and sewer bills. The worst case is that they will have to live with increased public health and safety risks and a degraded environment.” Furthermore, she warned that Trump’s planned 31 percent EPA budget cut would lead to the loss of thousands of public- and private-sector jobs.
“There is no question,” she said, “the administration is seriously weakening EPA’s mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach and defunding implementation of environmental programs.”
Southerland went public with her opposition to Trump’s environmental program, because she said “I felt it was my civic duty to explain the impact of this administration’s policies on public health and safety.”
A PhD in environmental science and engineering, Southerland called her more than four decades of environmental work, including three with EPA, “the most wonderful 40 years.” Two years ago she was honored with the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, given to just 1 percent of Senior Executive Service members for “sustained extraordinary accomplishment.” In Southerland’s case, she was recognized for her work in lowering swimming health risks by developing new national bacteria water quality standards.
Raised in Alexandria and residing in Fairfax Station, Southerland, 68, is married, has two sons and enjoys hiking. She will volunteer with the Environmental Protection Network, a group of former EPA staffers.
Southerland’s resignation came during the same month that a Union of Concerned Scientists report said Trump is creating a “hostile environment for scientific staff.”
That report was released the day after Interior Department scientist Joel Clement wrote a Washington Post opinion article saying Trump’s crowd retaliated against him “for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.”
In March, Mike Cox also cited the dangers Alaska Natives face from climate change when he quit EPA. In a letter to Pruitt, Cox said administration policies “are contrary” to those Americans want “to ensure the air their children breath[e] 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.”
Reacting to Southerland’s remarks, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said that “it’s hard to believe that Elizabeth Southerland is retiring because of a budget proposal and not because she’s eligible for her government pension. We wish Elizabeth Southerland the best in her retirement and the EPA will continue to re-focus on our core mission of protecting our air, land and water.”
Kyla Bennett, PEER’s New England director, placed Southerland’s departure in a broader context: “Increasingly principled professionals, who have proudly served administrations from both parties, are under orders to betray, rather than serve, the public interest by remaining at EPA.”
But don’t get the impression these examples of dissent are proof of revolt among federal employees. That is not the case.
“Everyone is focused on presenting all the facts to the new political team in hopes the facts will change their minds about defunding existing environmental programs and repealing existing rules,” Southerland said by email. “I do not know even one EPA employee who is doing anything to sabotage the existing political team. They are all doing their absolute best to give the politicals all the facts so they can make the right decision if they are open-minded. I personally do not know anyone who is planning to resign in protest, but I can confirm that staff involved in the [regulatory] repeal efforts already underway are heartbroken.”
She closed her written farewell to colleagues with a message that mixed rebuttals to Trump and Pruitt with the hope that others in government will save us from them.
EPA suffers “from the temporary triumph of myth over truth. The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities,” she wrote using capital letters for emphasis.
“It may take a few years and even an environmental disaster, but I am confident that Congress and the courts will eventually restore all the environmental protections repealed by this administration because the majority of the American people recognize that this protection of public health and safety is right and it is just.”