The White House began handing out gag orders to various federal agencies on Tuesday, meaning they must cease all communications outside of their organizations — this includes talking to the press without administrative approval. These reports came from leaks to news organizations like ProPublica, the Associated Press and the Washington Post.
Among the agencies silenced is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA was also directed to freeze all grants, agreements and contracts with long-time employees, some of which anonymously told news organizations that they had never seen anything like it.
There have been some reports that scientific data collected by scientists who work for the EPA will have to be reviewed by President Donald Trump’s staff before it’s released to the public, although it’s unclear exactly what that would entail.
These orders could affect scientific studies funded by the EPA. At the University of Utah, there are three EPA-backed studies currently underway that cost an estimated $1.2 million. Several more projects at the U are attempting to procure grants from the EPA amounting collectively to $4.8 million.
William Johnson, a professor in geology and geophysics, is one of the U’s researchers working on EPA-funded projects. He said this affects research being done by three of his colleagues — Anna Rasmuson, Logan Frederick and Carla Valdes.
Rasmuson has an EPA fellowship to predict pathogen transport in groundwater aquifers. Frederick has EPA funding to analyze trace elements in water from Lake Powell and the San Juan River. Her work aims to identify whether those chemical elements are in the water as a result of mining or if they’re from natural sources. Valdes was the lead author of a study under review on significant decreases in Great Salt Lake mercury levels. She’s now an EPA enforcement officer in Chicago.
Johnson says Rasmuson and Frederick currently receive some EPA support in exchange for their work “providing technical advice” to cleanup US Magnesium, a magnesium production facility near the Great Salt Lake which the EPA lists among “some of the nation’s most highly contaminated sites”.
In regards to their funding, he says they haven’t yet heard how their projects will be affected. Johnson is most concerned about a potential requirement to obtain administrative approval before publishing research.
“Any time you require a political review prior to release [of data], you warp the scientific content,” said Johnson. “This was the case, for example, for the EPA fracking study even under the Obama Administration. It seems clear that what is common among the Trump administration communications to its federal agencies is to ensure that all federal voices promote job creation via a fossil fuel economy despite newly-achieved economic, health and environmental advantages of renewable energy options.”
To Johnson, “this is an unfortunate throw-back job-growth approach that I believe will put the U.S. behind other major economies over the next four years. We need a forward-looking job-growth strategy that creates opportunities in the new energy complex for those who have been left behind.”
Of Rasmuson, Frederick and Valdes, Johnson says, “these are three young women who are about to enter their careers who work hard, are paid not a lot, and believe that protecting the ecosystem and human health is not contrary to a good economy.”
Until they hear from the EPA, these researchers and others at the U — as well as scientists across the country — are facing uncertainty about the work they’ve dedicated their lives to.