Peter Fimrite /The San Francisco Chronicle – 2018-02-26 00:49:50
Cutbacks, Policy Shifts Pummel Morale
At EPA Office in San Francisco
Peter Fimrite /The San Francisco Chronicle
(February 23, 2018) — Lynda Deschambault knew her career at the US Environmental Protection Agency had taken a hard turn in July when, she said, her supervisor told her during a performance review to “be as invisible as possible.” The next month, she took early retirement.
The request, she said, was jarring for a woman who had spent two decades enforcing pollution laws and the cleanup of toxic lands for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region, based in San Francisco. Managing Superfund sites is not a position that lends itself to blending in.
“I’ve been through other administrations before, and we were always told to tighten our bootstraps and get to work. This was saying, ‘Well, don’t do your job,'” said Deschambault, who was the remediation manager at Leviathan Mine, an abandoned sulfur pit in Alpine County. “It was very surreal. I had never seen this before.”
More than a year into the Trump presidency, cuts to the EPA’s budget and the easing of regulations under Administrator Scott Pruitt have demoralized many workers in San Francisco-based Region 9, according to three current employees, a manager and a scientist who left in the past year, and five other former employees.
In interviews with The Chronicle, the workers described a situation in which managers, enforcement officers and scientists who take pride in their mission are being pushed out or shunted to the side. They said the tension is probably one reason Region 9 is the only one of the agency’s 10 offices still without a permanent leader.
“I’ve been here 31 years, and this is definitely the worst I’ve seen it in the EPA in terms of job security, staffing and just being able to do the work that the American people expect to protect the environment,” said Mark Sims, an engineer in the air enforcement division in Region 9 who spoke as a representative of the local chapter of the Engineers and Scientists of California union.
The White House said this month it is seeking to cut more than $2.5 billion out of the agency’s budget. The proposal, for fiscal 2019, would shrink EPA spending by more than 23 percent. That would come on top of reductions carried out in 2017, when hundreds of employees, or roughly 5 percent, took buyouts and early retirement.
Pruitt, who declined to be interviewed, is engaged in a revamping of the EPA anchored in his belief that the agency has overstepped its congressional mandate, including when it began regulating heat-trapping greenhouse gases under President Barack Obama and hindered oil, gas and coal production in favor of renewable energy.
Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general sued the agency 14 times, has denounced the “picking of winners and losers” and believes in a “lean” EPA using a collaborative regulatory system. A memo sent to regional administrators Jan. 2 said the priority is “a level playing field for regulated entities.” It urged EPA regulators to defer to the states on enforcement whenever possible.
“What’s happened over the last 10 years or so is that the agency evolved and morphed into something that was almost like a superagency,” Pruitt told the New York Times in a recent podcast. “I think the agency took the perspective . . . that though we have been blessed with natural resources that help us literally feed the world and power the world, that we should not develop those resources.”
Central to Pruitt’s agenda — and particularly alarming to the current and former employees who spoke to The Chronicle — is his questioning of climate science. He acknowledged that the planet is warming in a recent television interview, but said it wasn’t “necessarily a bad thing,” despite evidence that warming could drive extreme weather events and coastal inundation from sea level rise. Pruitt has removed much of the information that the EPA had about climate change from the agency’s website.
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The request for Deschambault to lie low came on top of a series of regulatory rollbacks and cost-cutting moves. In October, Pruitt announced his intention to repeal the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s 2015 bid to curb power plants’ release of greenhouse gases. He said the program had “weaponized” the agency.
Even without the budget cuts at the EPA, enforcement has suffered, critics say. A report released this month by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, which pushes for strong enforcement of environmental laws, said that in the first 12 months of the Trump administration, the agency brought an average of 44 percent fewer civil cases than the previous three administrations did in the same time frame. The report said civil penalties paid by polluters declined 49 percent during the same period.
Deschambault and others said a malaise has gripped the EPA office at 75 Hawthorne St. in San Francisco, as managers are forced to tighten purse strings and limit inspections.
“Many inspectors have been discouraged from conducting inspections, and the attorneys who focus on enforcement have been moving away from it,” said Taly Jolish, an EPA lawyer speaking in her capacity as the president of the local American Federation of Government Employees union. “It’s depressing and discouraging . . . we came to EPA to enforce the environmental laws of the United States, which have been the model for the world.”
The 702 employees in Region 9 enforce federal regulations in California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, the Pacific islands and 148 tribal nations. The office has ordered California to re-examine rules that allowed oil companies to inject wastewater into aquifers, fined companies that polluted San Francisco Bay, forced the cleanup of rivers and creeks, and taken legal action against the Bureau of Indian Affairs for not providing adequate drinking water to schools on Indian land.
Environmental advocates say Pruitt’s actions have decreased critical oversight of polluting industries.
“We don’t have a fully functioning agency and that’s intentional,” said Jared Blumenfeld, who ran the San Francisco office before stepping down as regional administrator in May 2016. He said Pruitt is “delivering on his promise: Don’t do enforcement so polluters can be left to pollute.”
Pruitt has said oversight remains strong, but now strictly follows federal law.
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The San Francisco office employs about 250 fewer people than it did in 2010, Blumenfeld said. Records show about 700 employees nationwide have left the EPA since Trump was elected. Staffing is now roughly equivalent to the level in 1988, when 14,442 people worked for the agency. That’s about 3,000 less than were employed at the EPA a year into the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said 400 workers took buyouts, including 11 in Region 9, a small percentage of those who were eligible. He disputed that the San Francisco office is beset by concern over the agency’s direction, saying, “Morale is great at EPA.”
Blumenfeld said 800 to 900 employees are needed to attend to all of the work in Region 9. Sims said that in addition to those who took buyouts, as many as 40 other San Francisco employees quit or retired last year. Pruitt’s plan, he said, is to cut 10 percent a year for the next three years in Region 9, eliminating 47 jobs in the coming fiscal year.
Those numbers are “not accurate,” Wilcox said without elaborating.
Environmental groups and Democratic politicians are afraid staffing nationwide will be decreased so much that it matches the early 1980s, when then-EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch cut the budget, feuded with employees and reduced cases against polluters. She resigned in 1983 after a scandal over the mismanagement of the Superfund program. There were fewer than 11,000 employees in the agency that year, according to EPA documents.
Pruitt’s critics fear he will end dozens of programs nationwide and virtually eliminate work related to climate change. They say deferring to states with varying environmental priorities will make it more difficult for the EPA to hold polluters accountable.
The critics point to a recent settlement with Syngenta Seeds, which was accused of exposing workers in Hawaii to an insecticide. The EPA initially sought $4.8 million after 10 workers at a farm on Kauai were hospitalized, but settled this month for $150,000 while mandating a training program for growers.
“To reduce it by this amount is quite unusual,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA administrator in New York.
Pruitt has stated he wants to focus on Superfund cleanup and recently released a list of 21 sites targeted for immediate attention. The list included two of the 111 sites in Region 9. California has 98 Superfund sites, second in the nation to New Jersey.
One site on the list was ARCO’s abandoned Anaconda Copper Mine southeast of Reno. But instead of going forward with a remediation plan this month, Pruitt agreed, over the objections of nearby American Indian tribes and environmentalists, to delay a Superfund priority listing for at least four years.
“The first thing he did where an oil company is the polluter was say, ‘Oh, we won’t make it a Superfund site,'” said Kathy Setian, an environmental engineer who worked for 20 years as a Superfund project manager and left the agency in 2012. “It’s devastating. I feel like it is my life’s work that is being dismantled.”
Some project managers say regulations are being relaxed at many toxic sites, including Leviathan Mine, a 250-acre property in the Sierra abandoned in the early 1960s after sulfuric acid drained out and metals were detected in a creek and on Washoe Indian land. The state of California bought the site in 1983, and the Washoe asked the EPA to intervene 15 years later.
Oversight and the interpretation of data collected at the mine were curtailed last June as part of the lean management adopted by Pruitt. Deschambault said she was told to cut down on meetings and stop putting pressure on ARCO, which as a former site owner was handling cleanup, to provide the EPA with sampling results.
When Deschambault pushed back, she said she was told a second site manager would be brought in to streamline the process. She said her supervisor had told her to be “invisible” out of helpless frustration and concern for her, not out of animosity. The agency did not allow the supervisor to respond to inquiries, but Deschambault said she was told her supervisor denied the charge after she included it in her resignation letter.
“We don’t have any information for you at this time,” Michele Huitric, a Region 9 spokeswoman, wrote in an email when asked about Deschambault’s allegations.
“We feel like the administrator is promoting the oil and gas industries and that he’s focused on limiting the work that we feel is important,” Jolish said. “He sees industry as our customer.”
Wilcox said that “Administrator Pruitt is proud to streamline regulations, which is creating regulatory certainty.”
Blumenfeld’s onetime deputy, Alexis Strauss, has been acting administrator for Region 9 for nearly two years. (She could not be reached for comment.) So far, none of Pruitt’s preferred candidates have agreed to take over an office in a left-leaning region populated by employees considered to be largely hostile to the administration’s views.
Ryan Flynn, an oil and gas lobbyist in New Mexico, recently became the second oil industry executive to turn down the job, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing EPA sources. Flynn, who was twice awarded the “Toxic Turkey” prize by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, was not a popular choice among the rank and file, current and former Region 9 workers said.
Flynn, the executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, told The Chronicle he “never aspired” to be the San Francisco office administrator.
“I admire EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and strongly believe in EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment, however, my family is happily rooted in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I am very satisfied with my current role,” he said in an email.
Managers and former employees said EPA staffers fear that resisting changes, or criticizing the leadership, will lead to being targeted by the administration.
The EPA gave a no-bid, $120,000 contract to a Republican-linked opposition-research firm, Definers Public Affairs, and the the New York Times reported that one of its executives spent last year filing Freedom of Information Act requests while scouring the agency for “resistance” figures.
“People are so afraid of retribution,” Setian said. “They are trying to intimidate people.”
Wilcox, the EPA spokesman, said the firm was hired only to collect and categorize media reports for the agency. He denied the agency had sought to intimidate employees, but he acknowledged internal communications were subject to review.
“Like any government agency, all EPA employees are subjected to the Freedom of Information Act,” he said, “and in terms of the FOIAs, nearly all are aimed at political, not career employees.”
Deschambault said it is clear to her that the agency’s watchdog role is broken.
“The people we used to regulate are now in charge,” she said.
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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