EPA whistleblower: ‘We will resist’
Thursday, March 02, 2017
When Scott Pruitt stepped up to the lectern at the U.S. EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., for his first speech to agency staff as administrator, he sought to establish himself as a human being. He told the employees of his love of baseball, his respect for the law and how he intends to lead by listening to, and learning from, his staff.
He also acknowledged the negative press that plagued him during and following his confirmation hearing and urged his new employees to keep an open mind about his leadership.
“I look forward to sharing the rest of the story with you as we spend time together,” Pruitt said.
But that does not appear to be the message employees took away from the meeting, according to former EPA staffer Kyla Bennett, who now works with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an organization that supports EPA staffers with internal concerns. Instead, staff felt the speech was worse than they could have imagined, given that it comes from an administrator who has unapologetically sued the agency 14 times and has pledged to rapidly repeal several regulations that were the work of the very staff he now oversees.
“Morale has never been lower than it is now,” said Bennett, who leads the New England chapter of the organization and in recent weeks also took on responsibility for coordinating communications with EPA employees nationwide. “Administrator Pruitt’s speech did absolutely nothing to put their minds at rest…. If anything, it made them even more fearful.”
Moreover, rumors are running rampant at the agency, adding to the confusion and job security concerns, according to Bennett. She said one of those rumors was that employees would be forced to turn over any documents with Trump’s name on them to see if any negative comments about the new president were shared among staffers.
“Do I think that will really happen? Probably not. But the fact that they’re worried about stuff like that shows that they are really frightened,” Bennett said. “Things have been said and done to them that make them really, really fear for not only their livelihoods but the fate of the environment in this country.”
Newer employees opposed to Trump’s environmental agenda, especially those who have never lived through a presidential transition, also face an internal struggle about their future at the agency. The new generation of EPA employees is different, Bennett said, as many grew up wanting to work for the agency instead of simply falling into their careers like Bennett and a lot of other long-term EPA staffers.
“It was the only job I could get when I graduated from law school. I ended up loving it and really caring about the work that I did,” Bennett said. “But these kids grew up striving to work for the EPA. They thought it was such a great place to be and that they could really make a difference.”
Bennett is not sure how much of the new generation will end up leaving the EPA, but she has heard that many are attempting to find a balance. “What they are trying to figure out is how to walk that fine line of staying at the agency, keeping their sanity, and still trying somehow to protect the environment under this administration,” she said.
Part of that effort has included reaching out to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility or other EPA-supporting groups, as well as contacting the media to report concerns. Bennett herself was a whistleblower, so she knows the pressure facing an agency employee thinking of taking a serious concern to the public.
“Being a whistleblower is not fun. You’re a pariah. It’s an awful, awful place to be,” Bennett said. But she is heartened to see the leaks. “This is unprecedented. And I think it’s phenomenal. I’m so proud of them.”
As a testament to how important EPA employees see the agency’s work, an informal community of retirees has sprung up to offer their support, and Bennett is trying to organize that group’s efforts.
“We will resist,” Bennett said. “We will resist in whatever way, shape or form that we can.”
The employees’ concerns may fall on deaf ears within the administration, however. Former Trump transition team member Mike McKenna was greeted with loud applause at the West Virginia Coal Association conference Feb. 23, where he said the president is more concerned about keeping his promises to those who voted for him than how EPA employees feel about the new direction of their agency.
“We’re not about assuaging the concerns of the 14,000 employees of the EPA,” McKenna said. “We’re about assuaging the concerns of the 63 million people who voted for President Trump.”