A freeze on new EPA grants and contracts, announced within hours of President Trump's inauguration, did not result in any immediate funding cuts. However, the episode raises troubling questions about how the agency will operate under Trump.
What happened: EPA employees were told within hours of President Trump's inauguration to suspend contract and grant awards pending review by Trump's EPA transition team. The freeze was lifted shortly thereafter, and no immediate cuts were announced, but the timing of the move and the way it was conducted and communicated caused widespread concern among agency staff and external stakeholders.
Why it matters: Work done under EPA grants and contracts plays a key role in fulfilling the agency's mission of protecting human health and the environment. Interruptions to that work could have negative impacts for local communities. And the review of scientific work by political appointees is contrary to the agency's scientific integrity policy.
Hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States on Friday, January 20, an email from the administration was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instructing employees to temporarily suspend all contracts and grant awards. It was later reported by Doug Eriksen, the Trump transition’s team communication lead at the EPA, on Thursday, January 26 that an internal review of about $3.8 billion in grants had been completed. “We finished our review process,” Eriksen stated, “As of now, nothing has been delayed. Nothing has been cut. There was simply a pause and everything is up and running.” Additionally, Eriksen noted that many sources of funding continued including state revolving funds, tribes and other entities for capital construction and wastewater treatment, and brownfields and superfund cleanup projects.
While many sources of funding from the EPA continued to be dispersed, there was concern that grants and contracts were being reviewed by political appointees on Trump’s EPA transition team. When asked specifically about whether or not scientific data would be reviewed by political appointees on the transition team, Eriksen responded, “Everything is under review.” This review of science by political appointees was of concern as it presented possible conflict with the EPA’s scientific integrity policy that expresses scientific studies should be “uncompromised by political or other interference.”
There seemed to be disagreement on whether or not the pause on grants and contracts at the EPA was normal during a presidential transition; nonetheless, EPA employees have expressed concern about the signal it sends. Myron Ebell, Trump’s pick to run the EPA transition and well known climate change denier, confirmed the halt on Monday, January 23, but downplayed the suggestion that these actions were unprecedented, stating, “this may be a little wider than some previous administrations, but it’s very similar to what others have done.” A similar statement was sent to EPA employees by acting administrator Catherine McCabe, “this week you have…seen or heard both communications and reports in the press concerning some…interim actions directed by the new administration. Much of what you are hearing is perfectly normal for a new administration.”
However, not all felt that the halt on funding for grants and contracts at the EPA was normal. One anonymous EPA employee said that he had never seen anything like it during his almost decade-long career with the agency. The employee went on to note that hiring freezes were common during transitions, but a freeze on grants and contracts seemed extraordinary.
Disruptions to EPA grant and contract funding could make it difficult for the EPA to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment. At the time the freeze was imposed, it was unclear whether or not it affected the roughly $6.4 billion worth of federal contracts and grants the EPA currently had in place, or only contracts and grants yet to be awarded. EPA awards billions of dollars in grants every year to states, local communities, nonprofit organizations, and researchers at universities. The agency awarded between $3-9 billion in grants every year during 2000-2013, and $1-1.8 billion every year in contracts over this same time period. The agency provides these funds to states, local communities, tribes, and universities to work on issues ranging from adapting to the impacts of climate change to revitalizing communities once plagued with contaminated land.
While there have been no cuts to EPA grants or contracts as of February 2017, it is unclear whether or not there will be cuts made in the future or where those cuts would be made. There are indications that some programs may face the chopping block. For example, it was reported on February 2 that the EPA’s partners’ page removed mentions of the Tribal Environmental General Assistance Program (GAP).
Other developments indicate the EPA may operate differently than it has in the past. Employees at the EPA, as well as many other agencies, were asked to refrain from releasing any public-facing documents. The Trump administration also has stated that they intend to review climate change data housed by the EPA, and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has built his career on challenging the agency’s regulations, especially regulations that benefit the environment over the fossil fuel industry.