EPA Scientists Faced Political Interference Since 2003

Scientists from EPA Region 9 (California) report most meddling by political appointees


Lisa Nurnberger, UCS, (202) 331-6959
Paul Cort or Sarah Jackson, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Daniela Simunovic, Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment,  (661) 720-9140  

An investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency released today found that 889 of nearly 1,600 staff scientists reported that they experienced political interference in their work over the last five years. The study, by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), follows previous UCS investigations of the Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and climate scientists at seven federal agencies, which also found significant administration manipulation of federal science.

“Our investigation found an agency in crisis,” said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program. “Nearly 900 EPA scientists reported that their work has been manipulated or suppressed. That’s 900 too many. Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health, and our democracy itself.”

EPA Region 9, headquartered in San Francisco, reported the highest levels of political interference among EPA regional offices across the country. EPA scientists in regional offices support environmental permitting and enforcement decisions for specific sources, and review state and regional planning efforts required under federal environmental laws.

“I’ve seen it first hand,” says Paul Cort, a former EPA Region 9 attorney, now a staff attorney at Earthjustice. “California has some of the toughest environmental problems in the U.S., and this EPA does not want to take the actions necessary to address them. So it’s not surprising that the highest rates of reported interference and intimidation are in the EPA regional office responsible for California.”

The UCS report comes amidst a flurry of controversial activity swirling around the EPA. At the national level, Congress is currently investigating administration interference in a new chemical toxicity review process as well as California’s request to regulate tailpipe emissions. And in early May, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is expected to hold a hearing into political interference in the new EPA ground-level ozone pollution standard.

At the regional level, Region 9 has made a series of controversial decisions that have led to a number of ongoing lawsuits challenging the scientific and technical conclusions of the agency. Just this week, the EPA announced that air quality in the heavily polluted San Joaquin Valley now meets the national standards for coarse particle pollution — even though air quality measurements show continuing violations of that standard.

Today’s UCS investigation included dozens of interviews with current and former EPA staff members, analysis of government documents, and a questionnaire sent to 5,419 EPA scientists by Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics & Methodology. (Read the report, “Interference at EPA: Science and Politics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency“)

Among the UCS report’s top findings:

  • 889 scientists (60 percent) said they had personally experienced at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years.
  • 394 scientists (31 percent) personally experienced frequent or occasional “statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists’ findings.”
  • 285 scientists (22 percent) said they frequently or occasionally personally experienced “selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.”
  • 224 scientists (17 percent) said they had been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document.”
  • Of the 969 agency veterans with more than 10 years of EPA experience, 409 scientists (43 percent) said interference has occurred more often in the past five years than in the previous five-year period. Only 43 scientists (4 percent) said interference occurred less often.
  • Hundreds of scientists reported being unable to openly express concerns about the EPA’s work without fear of retaliation; 492 (31 percent) felt they could not speak candidly within the agency and 382 (24 percent) felt they could not do so outside the agency.
  • Fifty-eight staff scientists (73 percent) from EPA’s Region 9 office, which is responsible for overseeing compliance with federal environmental laws in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the U.S. Pacific territories, reported that they had experienced at least one incident of political interference over the past five years. Sixty percent said they knew of “many or some” cases in which political appointees were inappropriately involved in scientific decisions. (More findings from the EPA Pacific-Southwest region).

“One in five children in the San Joaquin Valley suffers from asthma,” said Daniela Simunovic with the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment in Delano. “The EPA is supposed to protect their health by ensuring this region attains clean air as soon as possible. Instead it seems that agency officials in Region 9 have been playing politics at the expense of the health of children and adults in the Valley and throughout California.”

The UCS investigation also revealed that EPA scientists cannot freely communicate their findings to the media, public or colleagues. Seven-hundred-eighty-three respondents (51 percent) said EPA policies do not let scientists speak freely to the news media about their findings. Scientists also shared anecdotes about being barred from presenting their research at conferences and their difficulties clearing research publication articles with EPA managers.

“Scientific integrity is the bedrock on which the federal science establishment must rest,” said Bill Hirzy, an EPA senior scientist and senior vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union, Chapter 280, the union that represents EPA scientists. “Too many EPA scientists have had to fight interference from political or private sector interests and fear retaliation for speaking out.”

Previous UCS investigations of other federal agencies show that the problem of political interference is not unique to the EPA. These investigations recently prompted a group of prominent scientists — organized by UCS — to call on the next president and Congress to strengthen protections for all federal scientists. The statement urges them to ensure that federal scientists have the freedom to publicly communicate their findings; publish their work; disclose misrepresentation, censorship or other abuses; and have their technical work evaluated by peers — all without fear of retribution. (Read the statement.) 

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