The week following President Donald Trump's inauguration has been a tumultuous one for the U.S. EPA, with leaks from inside the agency describing a gag order imposed on staff, a grants program for climate change initiatives put on hold and an attempt to scrub the agency's webpage housing climate change data.
During the daily press briefing Jan. 25, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied that there have been any directives handed down from the administration.
But an official associated with the Trump administration's EPA "beachhead team" later spoke to the media announcing that scientific research conducted by the EPA may be subject to "case by case" review, according to NPR. Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen, who has joined the beachhead team as a spokesman, said his team is reviewing agency activities.
"We'll take a look at what's happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that's going to reflect the new administration," Ericksen reportedly told NPR.
The next day, Myron Ebell, one of Trump's early transition advisers for the agency, told the Associated Press that the new administration is likely to seek up to $1 billion in budget cuts out of the EPA's $8 billion annual budget. The president may also slash staffing at the agency.
Ebell declined to tell the Associated Press what specific advice he gave the president before stepping back from the transition team, but said cutting the agency's staffing down by half would be "a good start." Ebell has returned to his position as director of the Competitive Enterprises Institute's Center for Energy and Environment. A spokeswoman for Ebell at CEI declined to comment for this story on his behalf.
Senate Democrats wrote to Trump on Jan. 26 expressing their concerns about the recent developments at the agency. Senators Edward Markey, D-Mass.; Thomas Carper, D-Del.; Jeffrey Merkley, D-Ore.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told the president that they were alarmed to hear of the grant program being put on hold. The program supports air and water quality monitoring and improvement, the clean up of contaminated sites and other environmental activities.
"Time and time again, you have promised Americans that you would keep their air clean and their water safe," the senators wrote. "The suspension of EPA's grants and contracts does the exact opposite of your stated intention — it puts the air Americans breathe and the water we drink at risk."
The Democrats worried that if the freeze applies to existing contracts, restarting them could be "an exceedingly expensive waste of taxpayer funds." The grants are handed out on a competitive basis free of political influence, and suspending the program may inject such influence into the program, the letter argued.
Speaking to MSNBC Jan. 25 about the gag order, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., reminded EPA staff that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, of which he is ranking member, overlooks the entire government. He also cited laws in place to protect whistleblowers.
"I'm telling you, the law protects you. And I will do every single thing in my power to make sure you are protected. Call me. I want to talk to you," Cummings said.