Washington, DC, Feb. 6, 2018 — After ham-handed restrictions on scientists produced embarrassing media coverage, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promised lawmakers that there would be no recurrence. EPA Headquarters, however, has been unable or unwilling to produce any written records describing these corrective actions, prompting Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to file a lawsuit today seeking these documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
Last October, EPA barred two staff scientists and a contractor from speaking at a Narragansett Bay workshop in Providence, R.I. The incident prompted outrage, including from Democratic members of Congress who demanded an explanation. In a letter dated December 4, 2017 to U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wrote that he understood concerns and that:
“Procedures have been put in place to prevent such an occurrence in the future. I have assured Office of Research and Development (‘ORD’) political and career senior leadership that they have the authority to make decisions about event participation going forward.”
Pruitt also wrote, “I am committed to upholding EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, which ensures that the Agency’s scientific work is of the highest quality, is presented openly and with integrity, and is free from political interference.” He added that, “EPA employee participation in any scientific event is covered by the aforementioned Scientific Integrity Policy.” These assurances may have little meaning because:
- Pruitt’s office has not specified what “Procedures” were adopted, nor how those actions were communicated. Nor have they identified how Pruitt has upheld EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy;
- That policy does not have clearance procedures enabling scientists to know when they may speak or publish. The Policy promises the creation of “an Agency-wide framework for the approval of scientific communications” but such a clearance procedure has yet to be written; and
- Pruitt’s statement that ORD “political…leadership” will decide who speaks and what they say is the exact opposite of a suggestion that EPA science will be “presented openly and with integrity.”
“Mr. Pruitt vows scientific freedom without benefit of an emancipation proclamation spelling out who can do what,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER, which today filed suit against EPA seeking records of what Pruitt has actually done to facilitate scientific openness. “If Mr. Pruitt can tell Congress that EPA science is transparent and may be openly shared, why doesn’t he also tell agency scientists?”
PEER argues that the lack of clear guidance for green-lighting scientific publication and presentations acts as a soft gag, using the uncertainty of political repercussion to cow scientists into silence.
“Contrary to his bland assurances, EPA under Pruitt has become a scientific gulag where only material toeing his line sees the light of day,” added Ruch, noting that Pruitt’s letter also does not indicate whether any new scientific leeway is limited to the ORD or includes the rest of EPA. “Mr. Pruitt keeps calling for scientific debate while permitting only his side to speak.”