New England Members of Congress Demand Explanation for Silencing of EPA Scientists
‘You would not have taken kindly to Washington bureaucrats telling scientists in Oklahoma they couldn’t speak with Oklahoma organizations to come up with “neighborhood solutions” to better protect public health and a critical economic asset. Neither do we.’
Washington, DC – After the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) canceled presentations by its scientists at a workshop on the health of Narragansett Bay—an event focusing on the challenges climate change and other threats pose for the critical economic resource—members of Congress from Rhode Island and Massachusetts are demanding an explanation from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. In a letter sent today, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representatives Richard Neal (D-MA), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Jim Langevin (D-RI), David Cicilline (D-RI), Joe Kennedy (D-MA), Katherine Clark (D-MA), and Seth Moulton (D-MA) asked Pruitt how he would react if the federal government silenced experts from his home state on a topic of the utmost importance to local communities’ health and economic wellbeing.
“You would not have taken kindly to Washington bureaucrats telling scientists in Oklahoma they couldn’t speak with Oklahoma organizations to come up with ‘neighborhood solutions’ to better protect public health and a critical economic asset,” the members write. “Neither do we.”
The State of the Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed workshop took place in Providence, RI, on October 23, and centered on the release of a 500-page report detailing the health of the Bay, problems it faces, and the progress made to address these issues. The EPA, which helped fund the research through its administration of the National Estuary Program (NEP), was scheduled to send three EPA-affiliated scientists to present material they had contributed to the report and share their expertise on the challenges facing the Bay. Just days before the workshop and without explanation, the EPA barred the scientists from presenting.
The EPA’s actions were a “blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA” under Administrator Pruitt’s leadership, chair of the science advisory committee of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program John King told the New York Times. According to the Times’s reporting, at least one of the EPA scientists had planned to address climate change and related factors in her presentation. “They don’t believe in climate change, so I think what they’re trying to do is stifle discussions of the impacts of climate change,” King added.
“Narragansett Bay is one of Rhode Island’s and Massachusetts’ most important economic assets,” the members note. “The [Narragansett Bay Estuary Program] and other environmental organizations in the Narragansett Bay watershed have long relied upon the expertise of EPA scientists to provide the data and analysis needed to plan for its future. . . . If EPA scientists are not allowed to participate in a workshop discussing the results of scientific research because that workshop included a discussion of climate change, that begs the question whether EPA will censor NEP grantees from discussing climate change . . . .”
Full text of the members’ letter is below. A PDF copy is available here.
October 31, 2017
The Honorable Scott Pruitt
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20004
Dear Administrator Pruitt:
We write to request information on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) role in cancelling planned presentations by three EPA-affiliated scientists in Rhode Island. On Monday, October 23, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program (NBEP) hosted a workshop to present findings from its recently released report, The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed. This report, funded in part by EPA and the culmination of three years of work among universities, not-for-profit organizations, and government agencies, offers a look at the status of Narragansett Bay and the challenges it faces. It identifies 24 factors affecting the health of the Bay. Climate change played a significant role in this comprehensive analysis.
The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed focuses on three climate change stressor indicators—temperature, precipitation, and sea level—because of their ubiquitous impacts on other stressor, ecosystem condition, and public health indicators. Based on datasets spanning nearly a century or more, analysis of these climate change indicators reveals long-term trends that are useful in understanding past environmental changes and projecting future changes in the Bay and its Watershed.
Autumn Oczkowski, an EPA ecologist, was scheduled to give the workshop’s keynote address. Rose Martin, an EPA scientist, and Emily Shumchenia, an EPA consultant, were scheduled to speak on a panel titled, “The Present and Future Biological Implications of Climate Change.” All three scientists directly contributed to the report. The event was structured so that EPA scientists would not participate in the press conference with elected officials. On Friday, October 20, EPA informed NBEP Director Tom Borden that the three scientists would not be allowed to speak at the October 23 workshop. No satisfactory explanation for this decision has ever been provided to the organizers of the event.
Narragansett Bay is one of Rhode Island’s and Massachusetts’ most important economic assets. The NBEP and other environmental organizations in the Narragansett Bay watershed have long relied upon the expertise of EPA scientists to provide the data and analysis needed to plan for its future. During your confirmation proceedings, you appeared to support this kind of federal-local partnership, writing in response to a question from Senator Whitehouse, “I am fond of saying that we need national standards and neighborhood solutions. I think that should shape the work of the EPA.” The NBEP’s workshop was part of an ongoing, statutorily required process of local stakeholders collaborating with scientists to come up with “neighborhood solutions.” You would not have taken kindly to Washington bureaucrats telling scientists in Oklahoma they couldn’t speak with Oklahoma organizations to come up with “neighborhood solutions” to better protect public health and a critical economic asset. Neither do we.
We are also alarmed by what EPA’s decision to muzzle its scientists means for the future of the National Estuaries Program. All National Estuaries Program participants (NEPs) receive annual financial support from EPA. They are required by statute to develop and implement Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plans (CCMPs) to address water quality issues and the health of estuaries. NEPs submit to EPA an annual work plan consistent with their CCMPs, which EPA must approve for funds to be released year to year. Congress recently recommitted its support of this program by reauthorizing it through FY 2021.
If EPA scientists are not allowed to participate in a workshop discussing the results of scientific research because that workshop included a discussion of climate change, that begs the question whether EPA will censor NEP grantees from discussing climate change in their management plans, annual work plans, or other public documents. It also calls into question EPA’s commitment to provide ongoing scientific support to the 28 NEPs across the country. So that we may better understand EPA’s current policies with respect to these issues, we ask that you provide responses and responsive documents to the following questions:
- Were Autumn Oczkowski, Rose Martin, and Emily Shumchenia prohibited from presenting their work at the NBEP’s workshop because it addressed climate change? Were there any other reasons why they were prohibited from participating in the workshop? Did that decision reflect official EPA policy? If so, please provide a copy of the relevant policy.
- Who made that decision? At what level was it approved? Please provide all communications related to that decision, and any documents that reference the NBEP October 23 workshop.
- Please provide all communications between Autumn Oczkowski, Rose Martin, and Emily Shumchenia or any other representative of the Atlantic Ecology Division and (1) Region 1 EPA Headquarters and (2) EPA’s main headquarters in Washington, D.C., related to the participation of any EPA employee’s or contractor’s participation in NBEP’s October 23, 2017 press conference and workshop, or the EPA research to be presented at that conference.
- EPA spokesman John Konkus was quoted as saying “EPA scientists are attending, they simply are not presenting, it is not an EPA conference.” Is it the policy of EPA to prohibit its scientists from presenting their work at anyplace other than “an EPA conference”? Please provide a copy of EPA’s policy governing the attendance and participation of its scientists at conferences and workshops, including how EPA defines an “EPA conference.”
- Going forward, will EPA scientists be able to contribute to the work of the NBEP (and other NEPs), the recommendations put forth in The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed, and the broader protection and restoration of the Narragansett Bay? Will there be any subject-matter limitations on what EPA scientists can research or discuss? If so, please provide a list of forbidden topics.
- The Washington Post has previously reported that Mr. Konkus, who is deputy associate administrator in EPA’s Office of Public Affairs, “reviews every award the agency gives out” and “has told staff that he is on the lookout for ‘the double C-word’ — climate change….”
- What role will Mr. Konkus have reviewing annual work plan submissions and long-term CCMPs for National Estuaries Program sites? Please provide any guidance used by Mr. Konkus or any other EPA staff used to review these submissions.
- Please provide a copy of Mr. Konkus’s resume, or any other documentation that would help explain Mr. Konkus’s ability to assess annual work plans and CCMPs that NEPs propose to address the environmental conditions in the estuaries they serve.
- The New York Times reported that “political officials from E.P.A. headquarters in Washington spent two days last week in the Rhode Island office reviewing the lab’s work.” Was that a regularly scheduled review of the lab’s work? If not, why was it performed? Please identify the officials and provide all guidance related to the determination of research topics and priorities at EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, including but not limited to the Atlantic Ecology Division in Narragansett, Rhode Island.
- Will NEPs that seek to address the effects of climate change be penalized in any way? Please provide a copy of the criteria by which NEP annual work plans and other CCMP-related submissions will be reviewed and evaluated by EPA.
We request the courtesy of a response to this letter no later than November 17, 2107.
 Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, EPA Yanks Scientists’ Conference Presentations, Including on Climate Change, Washington Post, October 22, 2017.
 Juliet Eilperin, EPA Now Requires Political Aide’s Sign-off for Agency Awards, Grant Applications, Washington Post, September 4, 2017.
 Lisa Freidman, EPA Cancels Talk on Climate Change By Agency Scientists, New York Times, October 22, 2017.
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