More than 700 employees have left the EPA since Scott Pruitt took over

It's the second-highest exodus from the agency in nearly a decade.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a hat that was presented to him before speaking to employees of the EPA. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a hat that was presented to him before speaking to employees of the EPA. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Since Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott 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. According to the EPA’s contingency shutdown plan for December, the agency currently has 14,449 employees on board — a marked change from the April contingency plan, which showed a staff of 15,219.

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There has been a drop of employees of 770 between April and December. While several hundred of those are buyouts, the rest of those are either people that are retiring or quitting in disgust,” Kyla Bennett, director of New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), told ThinkProgress. “Is that number higher than it would normally be? I think it is.”

According to the Washington Post, the agency set aside $12 million in 2017 for buyouts as part of an effort to reshape the agency under the Trump administration. Unlike in 2014, when the agency saw some 456 buyouts, the most recent buyouts were not a result of Congressional pressure or enacted cuts — rather, the buyouts were in an apparent attempt to bring the agency more in line with operations detailed in the Trump administration’s proposed budget, which suggested a 31 percent cut to the agency, including the complete elimination of several agency programs.

The EPA did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.

The offices most impacted by buyouts, retirements, or employees choosing to leave the agency are the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, which has lost 59 employees since April, the Office of Research and Development, which has lost 84 employees since April, and the Office of Enforcement and Compliance, which has lost 56 employees since April.

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“Overall, large numbers of people leaving the EPA in this day and age is terrible,” Judith Enck, who served as Regional Director for EPA Region 2 during the Obama administration, told ThinkProgress. “Rolling back enforcement is very troubling — it essentially means that people are going to breathe dirtier air and drink dirtier water.”

The offices that have suffered the heaviest losses under the latest restructuring have also been marked by controversy since Pruitt took over and began implementing the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda, which environmental and public health groups worry is often carried out by political appointees with clear ties to industry. Nancy Beck, for instance, who now serves as Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, took the position after five years working for the American Chemistry Council, the main lobbying arm for the chemical industry. Since coming to the EPA, public health groups have criticized Beck for implementing a number of changes to the way the agency tracks, reports, and regulates potentially toxic chemicals, potentially at the behest of industry. Beck joined the agency in May, well before the September deadline for employees looking to take voluntary buyouts.

Buyouts and exiting staff have also had an outsized impact on the agency’s scientific work. During a recent congressional oversight hearing, Pruitt praised EPA scientists, telling representatives that “it is important that we hear from our scientists internal to the agency.” But the Office of Research and Development, which functions as the scientific research arm of the agency, has lost more employees during Pruitt’s tenure than any other office. This comes as Pruitt attempts to limit the ability of scientists who have received grants from the EPA from serving on the agency’s independent science advisory boards, which examine scientific issues related to EPA regulations and make recommendations to the agency.

Losing staff from the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance has also likely hampered the agency’s enforcement efforts, which have dropped considerably under Pruitt. According to reporting by the New York Times, enforcement under the Trump administration has declined sharply at the EPA, with the agency filing just one-third of the number of civil cases against polluters than in the first nine months of the Obama administration; the penalties sought in those cases are 39 percent lower than those sought under the Obama administration.

Enck distinguished between the 2014 buyouts, which she said were essentially foisted upon the agency by the Congressional budget, and the most recent round of buyouts, which she sees as politically-motivated.

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In 2014, we did it reluctantly and we did it carefully, and it wasn’t based on ideology,” she told ThinkProgress. “[The Trump administration] joyfully did this long before Congress required cuts. That’s pretty big.”

But John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents over 9,000 EPA employees, said that both the 2014 and 2017 buyouts felt disorganized and left the agency without enough workers to carry out its core mission.

“They have no basis for doing a downsizing like this,” O’Grady said. “That’s what’s scary. It’s just, ‘Let’s get rid of people.’ That’s disturbing.”

It’s likely the EPA will see more buyouts after Congress passes the budget for 2018, which will is expected to include cuts to the agency, though not nearly as deep as the Trump administration proposed. The federal budget that passed in the House slashes the agency’s budget by more than $500 million, which would be less than 75 percent of its 2010 funding levels.

We’ve gone from 18,100 employees from 1999 to down around 14,400,” O’Grady said. “Our budget, even if it turns out to be $7.9 billion, that still sticks us back to about 1988 in terms of the budget. It is pretty ridiculous. We are not staffed up enough, and we have much more work to do than ever before.”