Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials — including three Republicans and one Democrat — sounded the alarm on Tuesday about the direction of the agency under President Donald Trump. They warned that decades of environmental progress are on the line.
Former EPA administrators under the Obama and Reagan administrations, as well as both Bush administrations, shared their concerns during a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing.
“I am here today because I am deeply concerned that five decades of environmental progress are at risk because of the attitude and approach of the current administration,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the agency under former President George W. Bush and served as governor of New Jersey before that.
She was joined by Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA under former President Barack Obama, and both William Reilly and Lee Thomas, who led the agency under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, respectively.
Despite political differences, all four speakers testified that they are alarmed by the current trajectory of the EPA — an agency tasked with safeguarding the environment and public health. The group of former officials blasted Trump’s environmental rollbacks and spoke of “science being sidelined.” They also highlighted the lack of transparency at the agency.
The Trump administration has repeatedly sought to slash the EPA’s budget, in addition to overseeing the mass rollback of Obama-era environmental protections. Top officials have also been accused of delaying the release of information to the public by stalling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, violating ethics standards, and undermining long-established agency policymaking processes.
The former agency heads told House lawmakers that they objected to the way the EPA is being managed at present.
Leading points of concern included Trump administration efforts to gut protections like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule, which limits dangerous air pollution from power plants, and the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which seeks to protect and expand bodies of water around the country. Those rollbacks have largely been hailed by the Trump administration and industry interests as a victory for economic growth and business, but the former administrators pushed back on that framing.
“With all due respect, EPA is supposed to pay attention… to the economic benefit of its regulations. But the environment and health come first,” said Reilly.
McCarthy, who oversaw the introduction of numerous environmental protections, said she was at the hearing “not to weep about all my precious rules being rolled back,” but “to remind the political leadership at EPA that what they do matters.”
She called for agency staffers “to step up and do their jobs,” which means protecting the public and ensuring that the environment remains a top priority for the government.
“EPA’s success is measured in human lives saved,” McCarthy emphasized.
The former administrators also criticized an exodus of career staff and high profile vacancies at the agency. Whitman spoke of a culture of fear at the EPA and a “keep your head down” mentality that has developed among career staff. McCarthy, meanwhile, criticized the growing dominance of political appointees, many of whom have outsized power over policymaking and agency priorities.
The former officials also pointed to the editing of EPA websites, which have been scrubbed to remove references to climate change despite overwhelming scientific consensus.
Another dominating focus was the sidelining of the Science Advisory Board (SAB), meant to be an expert nonpartisan, independent panel that guides and helps shape U.S. policymaking. The Trump administration has sought to reduce the presence of SAB scientists, instead bringing on individuals associated with special interests and industry.
That trend has worried environmental groups and experts, along with the former officials, who testified that they feel the opinions of independent scientists are critical to the EPA’s work.
“Science underpins it all,” said Whitman. Reilly similarly argued against appointing “a predominant number” of officials to the SAB “from roles where they have previously advocated for business interests,” essentially creating an industry-to-government pipeline.
Above all, the former officials expressed disappointment in what they said was a shift away from the agency’s core mandate of protecting the environmental and public health and toward one shaped by special interests.
Some Republican lawmakers, however, countered the assertions made by the former EPA officials and instead voiced support for the approach taken by the Trump administration. Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) accused the agency of a “history of overreach” and called many of its prior efforts “aspirational and not based on science,” although he provided no evidence substantiating that claim.
Democratic lawmakers largely used the hearing as an opportunity to call attention to the bipartisan criticism of the Trump administration’s approach to regulating science and the environment.
In a statement to ThinkProgress, Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) blasted the White House for putting “ideology and special interests ahead of science and Americans’ interests,” all while rolling back environmental protections.
“This Administration’s backward policies are not mainstream or supported by science,” Pallone said, pointing to the bipartisan showing on Tuesday as proof of just how little support these efforts have. “The EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” he said, “is not a partisan one.”