Week 130: Trump Takes His War on Science on the Road

The administration relocates science jobs, refuses to fill others, and tosses a lifeline to polluters (while silencing citizens).

July 19, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Landscape photo: Kent Kanouse via Flickr)

Go West, Young Man. Or You’re Fired.

The Trump administration is deploying a new tactic in its apparent effort to rid the federal government of expertise: relocating the science jobs away from the scientists.

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have until Monday to decide whether they will uproot their families from Washington, D.C., to an unspecified location somewhere in the vicinity of Kansas City. Those who refuse to move will either resign or be fired.

The affected workers serve in the USDA’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Taken together, the research conducted by the two groups touches on basically all aspects of food—nutrition, agricultural practices and technology, farm labor, food safety, rural poverty, and, notably, climate change.

USDA employees are infuriated. When Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the decision last month, the assembled workers literally turned their backs on him while he spoke. The administration says it’s moving the jobs to lower costs and bring the researchers closer to farmers, but many observers say this is really about disrupting research, erasing institutional memory, and killing climate change initiatives by forcing out the people conducting the work.

The tactic appears certain to work. A union survey found that 87 percent of the researchers will outright refuse or are unlikely to accept the relocation.

The administration has repeatedly rejected reasonable offers of compromise from the union, such as the option for researchers to work remotely for up to one year to ease the transition halfway across the country. The USDA is demanding that all employees be in Kansas City by the end of September, even though the department doesn’t know yet whether the office will be in Missouri or Kansas. Classy move, Sonny Perdue.

The USDA isn’t the only department pulling this dirty trick. News emerged this week that the Department of Interior plans to move 300 D.C.-based Bureau of Land Management jobs west of the Rockies, again to an area that hasn’t yet been specified. Many of the jobs will be in the upper levels of bureau management, an obvious attempt to rid the agency of its most experienced voices.

Stay tuned for the unveiling of the brand-new Trump Tower Kansas City, set to open in late September and offering a special introductory rate for federal employees. Just kidding. But would it surprise you?

Attack on Science, Part Two

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give you the first few words of a news article, and you guess the rest of the sentence. Here we go: “The Trump administration failed to follow ethics rules last year when it . . .”

If you guessed “dismissed academic members of Environmental Protection Agency advisory boards and replaced them with appointees connected to industry,” you are a winner! (We also would have accepted “authorized unnecessary travel expenses,” “intruded into the inner workings of the Department of Justice,” “privately enriched staffers in violation of the Emoluments Clause,” or any number of other responses.)

Science advisory boards play a crucial role at the EPA, whose work draws on countless areas of scientific inquiry: chemistry, biology, ecology, toxicology, and many more. The research in these fields is constantly advancing, and staff at the agency can’t stay on top of it without the help of outside experts.

Federal law requires administrations to consult with career staff members before choosing appointees to the scientific advisory boards, to provide a rationale for their selection, and to ensure that appointees meet federal ethics standards. According to a report this week from the Government Accountability Office, the Trump administration has sometimes failed on all three counts.

The GAO specifically called out the administration’s failure to follow protocol in appointing members to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. This is no coincidence. The administration is seeking to relax clean air protections as part of its push to rescue the moribund coal industry. In addition to packing the Clean Air Advisory Committee with industry scientists, the EPA completely disbanded the Particulate Matter Review Panel, which would undoubtedly have stood in the way of Trump’s deregulatory agenda because the science linking particulate matter to public health problems and major economic costs is airtight.

Meanwhile, at the science division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the scientific exodus is nearing completion. The last of the Obama-era holdovers left at the end of June. The office is now completely devoid of scientists. It’s largely a symbolic void, since Trump was never going to listen to his scientists anyway. But it’s still a bizarre situation.

The last member gave us a moment of levity on her way out the door.

Pipe Down, Victims!

Factories and power plants that will emit a substantial amount of pollution must receive from the EPA a permit that specifies how much air and water pollution they are allowed to release. Under current law, people and civic groups who live in the vicinity of such facilities may appeal the limits allowed in those permits if they feel the EPA has been too lenient. Conversely, the factory or power plant may appeal the permit if the owner feels that the limits are unnecessarily strict. This system—allowing either side to appeal—probably seems fair to you.

Unless, of course, you’re in the Trump administration. According to a report late last week in the New York Times, the Trump EPA is working to change the law to allow only the polluters to appeal.

This little-noticed maneuver epitomizes the Trump administration’s approach to environmental regulation: Kowtow to industry and ignore the health and rights of people. Eventually, though, the administration will be required to provide a judge with a rational justification for this move. It will be very interesting to see its lawyers try to explain why polluters should be allowed to appeal their emissions limits, but the Americans whose children will be breathing and drinking the stuff should have no say whatsoever.

A Harvard law professor called the administration’s move “outrageous.” Kudos to him for maintaining his capacity for outrage after 129 weeks of increasingly outrageous attacks on our country’s system to protect the health of its citizens and their surroundings.

Demand real leadership at the EPA

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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