On September 5, 2019, The Century Foundation and the selection committee of the Peter A. A. Berle Environmental Integrity Award gave a Special Recognition award to Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, former director of science and technology in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water, for speaking out against the EPA’s assault on environmental science and scientists. Dr. Southerland’s remarks, which appear below, have been edited for clarity.
Thank you so much for this Special Recognition award. It is an honor to receive an award from my personal heroes, environmental lawyers, who are on the front lines responding to the Trump EPA’s juggernaut of over seventy regulation repeals—actions that are so radical that many industry leaders oppose them, even when they are the alleged beneficiaries. I worked at EPA during transitions for three presidential administrations, over more than thirty years, and while an incoming administration often abandoned or rewrote a rule that had not yet been proposed, they never before undertook a wholesale repeal of rules that had been duly promulgated. We are in unchartered territory in terms of the number and speed of the repeals underway in this administration, even for rules promulgated as far back as 2012. It is vitally important that everyone in this room and environmental lawyers throughout the country succeed in overturning these regulatory rollbacks that threaten the health and well-being of every person in this country.
Our country is broken now, and each and every one of us needs to devote our energy and expertise to putting it back together. The country has been broken by an executive branch that is devoted to satisfying every demand from their political donors, no matter how harmful to the American people; broken by a constant assault on the rule of law, as critical public health and worker protections are repealed solely to maximize corporate profits; and broken by an administration that denies and systematically suppresses scientific facts and expertise.
At Trump’s EPA, the attacks on science have been the most severe and all-encompassing, because the administration rightly fears that their deregulation efforts will not survive judicial review unless they can dismiss the science underlying the rules being repealed. Here is a list of the seven most egregious actions the Trump administration has already taken at EPA to suppress facts and silence scientists:
- they immediately stripped discussion of climate change impacts from all websites and reports;
- based on bogus conflict-of-interest reasons, they replaced university scientists with industry and state government scientists on all science advisory boards and claimed time constraints required them to disband expert panels for two major air pollutants;
- they announced that EPA will now leave it up to the states to develop safe levels for unregulated contaminants in drinking water, despite state requests for nationally consistent drinking water health advisories;
- they proposed a drinking water standard for the toxic chemical perchlorate that is set at an indefensibly high level in order to eliminate the need for regulation;
- despite multiple petitions, they refused to ban workers’ use of two different pesticides, a toxic paint stripper, and asbestos-containing products—all known to cause serious illnesses in workers;
- they proposed a rule that prohibits EPA from using public health studies to set air and water quality standards unless participants waive their rights to privacy, effectively eliminating agency use of the key health studies underlying all clean air and water regulations over the past five decades; and
- they changed the way the benefits of environmental regulations have been calculated over the past fifty years, so that EPA can significantly underestimate benefits and falsely claim that the rules they are repealing have benefits far less than the costs they impose.
I certainly hope that the recognition I am receiving today will encourage other scientists to speak out, either as whistleblowers inside government or as activists once they leave government. Based on my experience, EPA spokespersons will go to great lengths to discredit the views and motivations of scientists who speak out, including using federal tax dollars to hire an opposition research firm to delve into their lives. However, it is critical for government scientists to speak the truth so that the American people will understand what the Trump administration is doing to long-standing environmental protections that the public used to take for granted.
I belong to the Environmental Protection Network, a new nonprofit organization comprised of over 450 former EPA career staff and political appointees—from both parties—who volunteer their time to provide an informed and rigorous defense against this administration’s efforts to undermine public health and environmental protections. We prepare written comments on EPA’s proposed rules to make certain the public record reflects our institutional knowledge, we help the press understand the impact of agency actions, and we provide information and witnesses for congressional committees. Help from outside experts is especially needed now by congressional committees, since they can no longer depend on unbiased technical assistance from EPA scientists whose responses to congressional questions are controlled by political appointees—a practice more typically found in totalitarian governments.
I will end my remarks today by repeating the prediction I made when I resigned from EPA in 2017. It will take a few years, but I am confident that Congress and the courts will eventually restore all the environmental protections that this administration is taking away from us, because government must be held responsible for protecting the public’s health and well-being. Thank you again for this award, and I look forward to working with you to reverse the environmental damage being inflicted on the American people by the Trump administration.
Cover Photo: People march near the White House during the People’s Climate Movement in Washington, to protest President Donald Trump’s attack on the climate and the Environmental Protection Agency. Source: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images