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24 Jan, 2017 23:47

Trump bars EPA & USDA from talking to media or awarding grants

Trump bars EPA & USDA from talking to media or awarding grants

President Donald Trump appears to be waging a war on science and the environment. His latest moves include banning at least three Cabinet-level agencies from talking to the media, publishing scientific research or issuing grants.

Between Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon, the Trump administration had instituted gag orders and freezes on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The new policies came at the same time that Trump signed presidential memoranda that removed obstacles to the construction of two major oil and gas pipelines ‒ the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines ‒ as well as expedited environmental reviews for critical infrastructure projects and streamlined the “extremely cumbersome” regulatory process for domestic manufacturing, all moves condemned by environmentalists, among others.

Despite the new guidance and the new policies for EPA, USDA and HHS, the Twitter feed for Badlands National Park, which is overseen by the Department of the Interior, sent out three tweets on Tuesday promoting climate science. Trump has repeatedly called global warming a "hoax" perpetuated by China. The tweets were later deleted.

EPA ‘in a holding pattern’

At the EPA, staff were instructed to freeze all its grants and contracts, as well as to stop communicating with the media and on social media, ProPublica and the Huffington Post reported Monday night.

“Right now we are in a holding pattern. The new EPA administration has asked that all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately. Until we receive further clarification, this includes task orders and work assignments,” an EPA contracting officer wrote to a stormwater management employee in a memo that was obtained by ProPublica.

The move could threaten the EPA’s budget allocations ‒ possibly including its approximately 600 current federal contracts worth about $6.4 billion ‒ and could potentially disrupt its ability to perform toxic cleanups, water testing and other core operations.

"Basically no money moving anywhere until they can take a look," an agency staffer told Reuters.

The EPA will also cease external communications, including press releases, social media and blogs, according to a memo obtained by the Huffington Post. The incoming administration will also “review the list of upcoming webinars and decide which ones will go forward,” as well as any external speaking engagements through February. “No new content can be placed on any website. Only do clean up where essential,” the memo said.

“They’re trying to freeze things to make sure nothing happens they don’t want to have happen, so any regulations going forward, contracts, grants, hires, they want to make sure to look at them first,” Myron Ebell, who ran the EPA transition for the incoming administration, told ProPublica. “This may be a little wider than some previous administrations, but it’s very similar to what others have done.”

However, an EPA employee anonymously passed along the information about the freezes to a congressional office, fearing retaliation, a Capitol Hill staffer told the Huffington Post.

“I will say it’s pretty unusual for us to get these kinds of anonymous contacts from people at the agency, which makes me think it’s unusual,” the Hill staffer said.

The EPA is expected to come under intense scrutiny and policy changes under the Trump administration. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the EPA, has described himself as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” As the attorney general for Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the agency he’s been chosen to head 14 times, and lost nearly every case.

USDA research can’t be spoken about publicly

On Monday morning, the USDA told staff at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), its in-house research division, were told not to release any documents externally, BuzzFeed News reported on Tuesday morning.

“Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” Sharon Drumm, chief of staff for ARS, wrote in a department-wide email obtained by BuzzFeed News. “This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

The department later clarified that the policy was referring solely to “informational products.”

“Scientific publications, released through peer reviewed professional journals are not included,” Christopher Bentley, a spokesperson for ARS, told Buzzfeed.

However, scientists won’t be able to talk about their research without prior approval, Popular Science reported. The magazine noted that such a policy “means that many of the kinds of stories we now cover will never see the light of day.”

Under the Obama administration, ARS began researching agricultural subjects that affect climate change, such as finding ways to cut down on cattle releasing methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

The new policy was extended to all USDA employees, instructing them not to make policy-related external statements without express approval from several top administration officials, according to a three-page memo obtained by Quartz Tuesday afternoon. The policy does not just cover talking to the press, but also covers discussing many topics with members of Congress and their staff.

HHS banned from ‘any correspondence to public officials’

At HHS, the Cabinet department that oversees the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), officials have been told not to send “any correspondence to public officials,” the Huffington Post reported Tuesday afternoon, citing a congressional official who was also informed of the communications freeze. Rather, employees will have to refer any questions to agency leadership, at least until the new administration met with HHS officials about Trump’s policies and objectives.

The new policy has “startled” Hill staffers, who are worried that it could “abruptly upend current  operations and stifle work and discussions that routinely take place between branches of government,” according to the Huffington Post.

White House response

White House press secretary Sean Spicer dodged questions about the new policies during his briefing Tuesday afternoon, saying that the story “literally is breaking as we are entering the briefing room.” The remark came even though the reporting on the EPA policy began Monday night.

“I don't think it's any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover that we’re going to review the policies,” Spicer said.

When asked if the policies were different than what happened at the Department of the Interior after the National Park Service mistakenly retweeted posts that portrayed Trump in a negative light, Spicer replied that the Interior gag order came because “they had inappropriately violated their own social media policies, there was guidance that was put out to the department to act in compliance with the rules that were set forth.”