Trump’s EPA to close research center that protects public health

Scott Pruitt puts public health at risk by eliminating key EPA research program.

Scott Pruitt's EPA is eliminating a program that funds research into the environmental impacts on communities. CREDIT: Pete Marovich/Getty Images.
Scott Pruitt's EPA is eliminating a program that funds research into the environmental impacts on communities. CREDIT: Pete Marovich/Getty Images.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to eliminate its National Center for Environmental Research (NCER), a department that funds research into environmental impacts on communities.

The center, tasked with distributing “grants to test the effects of chemical exposure on adults and children,” will be shuttered amid a reorganization at the agency as part of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s goal of creating more efficiency at the agency.

Most of the EPA’s grants come out of the NCER, a division of the agency’s Office of Research and Development. Last October, Pruitt ordered that scientists who have received EPA grants from the NCER and other programs at the agency won’t be allowed to serve on the agency’s advisory boards. Critics of the policy change denounced the move as a poorly disguised attempt to push out experts at odds with industry.

The NCER’s most prominent program is called Science to Achieve Results, or STAR, which was created in 1995. The STAR program has distributed grants to the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers. The two centers have been “successful in advancing our scientific understanding and ability do address the ways that environmental chemicals can impact children’s health,” a former EPA senior scientist told The Hill.

A recent report issued by the National Academies of Sciences concluded that through the STAR program, EPA has created a vehicle that fosters collaboration and knowledge-sharing in a way that “may reduce the cost of regulations, protect public health, and save lives.” About eight years after STAR’s creation, a National Research Council committee reviewed the program and strongly endorsed it as an integral part of EPA’s research program.

The Trump administration, however, has singled out the STAR program for elimination in its budget proposals. The STAR program’s budget allocation has varied over the years, peaking at around $138 million in 2001 and 2002 and reaching its lowest point in 2016 at about $39 million. Between 2001 and 2015, the program awarded nearly 1,500 grants and fellowships in total, according to the National Academies of Sciences report.

The EPA said Tuesday it will be holding numerous “town halls” with staff to discuss the proposed changes to ensure it is developing the best organization possible. Under the first phase of the reorganization, the grants managed by the NCER will fall under the Office of Resource Management, a new office created through the merger of the NCER, the Office of Administrative & Research Support, and the Office of Program Accountability and Resource Management.

Freedom of Information Act requests, records management, and budget formulation functions from other EPA organizations will also be moved into the new office.

“This potential reorganization would not affect anyone’s employment or status and the management of research grants will continue. [Office of Research and Development] leadership is currently holding listening sessions with staff across the country to discuss this proposal, so everyone can work together to develop the best organization possible,” EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman said Tuesday in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

No EPA staffers will be losing their jobs, the agency said.

One of the NCER’s major successes was its funding of pollution-focused initiatives at the Particulate Matter Centers, Clean Air Research Centers, and Air, Climate, and Energy Centers, The Washington Post reported last June. Research produced by these centers demonstrated that air pollution can decrease human life expectancy, helping to support the establishment of more stringent nationwide air quality standards.

Environmental and public health groups worry about the impacts of the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda.

Since Pruitt took over the top job at the agency in March, more than 700 employees have either retired, taken voluntary buyouts, or quit, signaling the second-highest exodus of employees from the agency in nearly a decade. According to agency documents and federal employment statistics, 770 EPA employees departed the agency between April and December, leaving employment levels close to Reagan-era levels of staffing.

Environmental groups are interpreting the elimination of the center as another example of the Trump administration siding with the chemical industry. Last year, Pruitt also rejected a ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to reduced IQ, developmental delay, and increased risk of learning disabilities in children.

“By shutting the door on the research operation that keeps our kids safe from toxic chemicals all while making dangerous policy decisions that pump more chemicals into our air and water, Scott Pruitt is taking the health and safety of our families as seriously as playground games,” Melinda Pierce, federal lobby and advocacy director for the Sierra Club, said Tuesday in a statement.