White House

Federal workers fear for their jobs amid reported gags on EPA, other agencies

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, center, and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, speaks at the Homeland Security Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017.
President Donald Trump, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, center, and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, speaks at the Homeland Security Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. AP

Federal employees – particularly those involved in climate change research and policy – are increasingly fearful that they could soon be fired under a Trump administration that seems to be limiting what can be said about global warming and other environmental issues.

The concern that their jobs will disappear is far more widespread than the incidents of federal employees using their agency’s official Twitter accounts to challenge President Donald Trump, prompting federal social media accounts to be scrubbed twice in the last week.

Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit support network for aggrieved federal workers and whistleblowers, said his organization has taken several calls from employees of the Environmental Protection Agency concerned about their job security.

“It’s a reasonable fear,” he said.

All federal employees knew their lives would be changed by Trump’s election, and that was especially true for the EPA’s 15,300 employees and the 70,000 employees of the Department of Interior, which controls vast tracks of lands, particularly in the West.

Trump campaigned on opening up federal lands to more oil and gas drilling and at one time called for eliminating the EPA.

Yet the speed of the changes has surprised many. One of Trump’s first actions was to remove a Climate Action Plan from the White House website. On Monday, he ordered a freeze on federal hiring, a prelude to reducing the federal workforce through attrition and possibly layoffs. He also told the EPA to freeze all grants and contracts.

Probably the biggest concern is that the Trump administration will try to modify or block agency research and findings to suit its talking points. Interior and EPA are two agencies that conduct climate research, but others do so as well – namely NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported the Trump administration had ordered the EPA to take down climate change pages from its website. Subsequent reports suggested those pages may get a reprieve, and they were still available late Wednesday. Yet on other federal websites, documents related to climate change were being removed.

At the State Department, the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs has taken down climate change reports, as has the department’s Office of Global Change, according to the Center for American Progress, a group that has been tracking such changes. Archived versions of those reports remain available, and a 2014 fact sheet on climate change – now missing from the State Department site – also can be found elsewhere.

Environmental groups are accusing Trump of plotting to limit public access to research on climate and other environmental issues.

“Demands to shut down informational websites and prevent the release of scientific findings are straight out of Orwell,” Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, said in a statement.

At a briefing Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration was “looking into” claims that EPA officials have been gagged but denied that the White House had ordered changes on websites or to agency social-media accounts.

“They have not been directed by us to do anything,” Spicer said. “They’ve been told by their own agencies to follow their own policies.”

Federal environmental employees have gone through big transitions before, including when George W. Bush replaced Bill Clinton in the White House, and when Barack Obama replaced Bush. But back in those days, Twitter, Facebook and other social media did not exist. The speed of those platforms makes it more difficult for an incoming administration to control the message.

The Interior Department on Friday quickly suspended its Twitter accounts after the National Park Service retweeted an image comparing the crowd sizes during the inaugurations of Trump and Obama, showing that Obama’s was much better attended. The park service also tweeted that the White House had scrubbed its website of mentions of climate change and other issues.

Although the park service has since resumed its Twitter feed, it and other federal agencies have either softened their offerings or gone dark altogether. The EPA hasn’t tweeted since Thursday, the day before Trump was inaugurated.

NOAA and NASA have continued to post items about climate change.

On Tuesday, the official account for Badlands National Park started tweeting facts about climate change that seemed aimed at challenging the new administration. The tweets were later deleted and a National Park Service spokesman told BuzzFeed they were the work of a former employee.

The defiance by a few park service employees has prompted netizens to create bogus websites for federal environmental agencies, such as @ungaggedEPA and @AltUSNatParkSer.

Do the Badlands tweets, and the earlier ones after the inauguration, reflect a budding resistance within the National Park Service?

“I’ve gotten no calls on this issue” from parks employees, said Maureen Finnerty, the former superintendent at Olympic and Everglades national parks, who now serves on the executive council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. “I am not sure how widespread this is.”

Ruch said he was more concerned about scientific muzzling than controls on social media. “There’s a fear this administration will tailor the science to fit its view of the world,” he said. “We will have not just alternative facts, but alternative research.”

On National Public Radio on Tuesday, Doug Ericksen, the communications director for Trump’s EPA transition team, said he expects that agency scientists will face an internal vetting process before their work is made public.

“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 told NPR.

Ruch said the Obama administration had directed agencies to set up “scientific integrity” policies aimed at protecting them from political retribution. But implementation of the policies has been spotty, he said. The Department of Energy, for instance, did not release its policy until Jan. 4, two weeks before Obama left office.

Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth