The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why EPA employees in the Trump era say they need a Workers’ Bill of Rights

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

Like all Americans, Joyce Howell is already covered by one Bill of Rights. So why does she need another one?

Because she works for the Environmental Protection Agency, the government body at the epicenter of complaints about improper political interference by the Trump administration.

“In light of the attacks by the Administration, EPA employees around the country are joining together to articulate a bold new vision for an EPA Workers’ Bill of Rights that embraces science,” says the preamble to the 10 points issued last month by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). Among the points are the right “to scientific integrity in EPA work” and “to conduct climate change research.”

Howell, an EPA attorney speaking as an AFGE official based in Philadelphia, provided personal examples to explain why the union says this bill of rights is necessary. “I was on a climate change work group that simply disappeared after the new Administration came in without even a note of explanation,” she said by email. “The group just stopped meeting.”

An AFGE petition complains about Trump policies that “run counter to science” and “the Administration’s all-out assault on workers at the EPA. Research has been stymied, EPA staffing has been cut to the lowest level since 1985, and years of scientific advancement to make our environment healthier for all Americans has been swiftly erased.”

EPA’s scientific advisers warn its regulatory rollbacks clash with established science

The controversy surrounding Trump’s meddling in the Justice Department case against political operative Roger Stone has dominated headlines recently, but it is the day-to-day experiences of federal employees, particularly in the science agencies, where inappropriate political interference hurts most.

Consider Columbia University’s Silencing Science Tracker. It lists hundreds of “government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion . . . since the November 2016 election.”

The first dates to one week after the vote — before Trump was inaugurated — when the phrase “climate change” was removed from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. The largest categories of examples are “government censorship” and “bias and misrepresentation.” The EPA has more instances than any other federal office.

EPA officials scoffed at the criticism from the AFGE and the tracker. In a statement, the agency said the EPA “has worked to put forward the strongest regulations to protect human health and the environment” leading to air pollution reduction and the cleanup of contaminated sites.

Although his case is not listed, Mike Stoker could fit into the tracker’s “personnel changes” category. Stoker is the person often credited with coining the “Lock her up!” chant shouted against Hillary Clinton at Trump rallies. He wouldn’t seem to be a likely candidate to be dismissed from his politically appointed post as the EPA’s Western region administrator, in San Francisco.

But in a message to staffers this month, Stoker said he was told by a headquarters official “that it wasn’t going unnoticed how many Democrat members in Congress were commending me for the job I was doing,” including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). He was fired the morning after Pelosi ripped up Trump’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4 and wonders whether that wasn’t a coincidence.

EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer’s statement said that Stoker was forced out because “Mike was too interested in travel for the sake of travel and . . . for severe neglect and incompetent administration of his duties.”

Stoker responded sharply, saying he was never reprimanded or even given a reason for his termination. “It’s lies. It’s 100 percent false, and it’s slander,” he added by phone.

Yet he still supports Trump.

Science ranks grow thin in Trump administration

The EPA has a record of trying to discredit former employees who are critical of the agency.

After an August 2017 column I wrote about Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, a retired 30-year member of the Senior Executive Service at the EPA, the agency peddled false information about the amount of her pension.

“The Trump EPA is devoted to satisfying every demand of the President’s political donors, no matter how harmful to the American people,” she said in a recent email. “The Trump administration’s environmental policy is based only on political considerations and has no underlying principles or ideology.”

According to a statement from the EPA, reports by former officials, current employees and Columbia University researchers are “unsubstantiated claims [that] have no basis in fact. EPA has always and will continue to use the best available science when developing rules, regardless of the claims of outside special interest groups.

“Under President Trump, EPA has made tremendous strides in protecting human health and the environment because we value the input of our career scientists and rely on their groundbreaking research and advice.”

But instead of feeling valued, some career scientists, like Southerland, have fled the EPA and other agencies because of Trump’s policies.

“The Trump Administration is gutting and politicizing the federal science enterprise across the board,” Joel Clement, former director of the office of policy analysis at the Interior Department, said by email. He said other presidents “have gone after science . . . but never has an Administration so blatantly and comprehensively neglected, marginalized, and ignored the important expertise of their own scientific experts the way that the Trump Administration has.”

So where does that leave the scientists who remain?

The “embarrassed” experts, Clement said, “must find ways to do their important work without attracting the attention of the political appointees who are clearly working for their industry patrons rather than the American public.”

Read more:

The largest federal employee union punches back at Trump

EPA tried to discredit retirees after The Post published their criticisms

EPA won’t be able to do the ‘right thing’ under Trump, says latest protesting official

Trump creates ‘hostile environment’ for federal government scientists. One speaks out about reprisals.

Is Trump making the political environment for top civil servants worse?