Embattled EPA workers say they need 'bill of rights' under Trump administration

Workers at the Environmental Protection Agency say staffing and morale levels have fallen so low that they’re calling for a new “bill of rights” to protect the EPA’s scientific integrity.

Backed by a handful of Democratic lawmakers, the employees are demanding that agency leadership not interfere politically in their enforcement duties or their environmental research. They’re also asking for a beefed-up budget, an end to government shutdowns and a new union contract bargained by both sides.

Bethany Dreyfus, a lawyer working on Superfund enforcement for the EPA in San Francisco, said the agency’s offices have been stretched thin by employee attrition and worn down by what she sees as the White House’s hostility to the agency’s core work. While the proposed bill of rights is essentially a symbolic gesture, she said she hopes it reminds leadership of the EPA’s stated mission, which is to protect human health and the environment.

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The EPA under the Trump administration
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler, left, has his photo taken by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt as they board Air Force One for a trip to Pittsburgh with President Donald Trump Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
In this Sept. 19, 2019, photo, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks about President Donald Trump's decision to revoke California's authority to set auto mileage standards stricter than those issued by federal regulators, at EPA headquarters in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler, right, and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao speak to reporters about President Donald Trump's decision to revoke California's authority to set auto mileage standards stricter than those issued by federal regulators, at EPA headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, as President Donald Trump announces that his administration is revoking California's authority to set auto mileage standards stricter than those issued by federal regulators, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. Critics say the move would result in less fuel efficient cars that create more planet-warming pollution. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James, center, shakes hands with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler after they signed a document to revoke the Waters of the United States rule, an Obama-era regulation that provided federal protection to many U.S. wetlands and streams, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump, left, listens as Kenneth Graham, director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center, on screen, gives an update during a briefing about Hurricane Dorian at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, in Washington, at right of Trump is Acting Administrator Pete Gaynor, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and Neil Jacobs, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Donald Trump speaks as he views construction during a visit to Shell's soon-to-be completed Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, in Monaca, Pa. At left is Hilary Mercer, vice president of Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals, left, and second from left is Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler and Charles Holliday, chairman of the board of directors for Royal Dutch Shell. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Donald Trump speaks as he views construction during a visit to Shell's soon-to-be completed Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, in Monaca, Pa. From left are Energy Secretary Rick Perry; Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil company; Hilary Mercer, vice president of Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals; Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler and Charles Holliday, chairman of the board of directors for Royal Dutch Shell. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, center and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler, left, listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a visit to the Pennsylvania Shell ethylene cracker plant on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 in Monaca, Pa. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, accompanied by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., speaks at the Monroe Energy Trainer Refinery in Trainer, Pa., Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks as President Donald Trump stands nearby during an event about the environment in the East Room of the White House, Monday, July 8, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Workers listen to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler speak at the Monroe Energy Trainer Refinery in Trainer, Pa., Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks during a media availability at the Environmental Protection Agency, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Washington. Wheeler signed a repeal of one of the Obama era's two biggest climate change initiatives, the Clean Power Plan, and adopting an alternative plan that would loosen regulations on the plants. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, left, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Mary B. Neumayr, stand as EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler signs the Affordable Clean Energy Rule during a media availability at the Environmental Protection Agency, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Washington. Wheeler signed a repeal of one of the Obama era's two biggest climate change initiatives, the Clean Power Plan, and adopting an alternative plan that would loosen regulations on the plants. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, second from left, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, second from right, applaud as they listen to President Donald Trump speak at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies before the House Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee during a hearing on President Trump's budget request for Fiscal Year 2020, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Displayed is an Environmental Protection Agency report ahead of a news conference in Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. Under strong pressure from Congress, the EPA said Thursday that it will move ahead this year with a process that could lead to setting a safety threshold for a group of highly toxic chemicals in drinking water.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reacts after questioning Andrew Wheeler as he testifies at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Acting Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks after signing an order withdrawing federal protections for countless waterways and wetlands at EPA headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Andrew Wheeler, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Acting Administrator, talks to reporters, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, after touring the Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station in Seattle, a project funded by a low-interest loan from the EPA. The facility will treat millions of gallons of polluted stormwater that currently flows into Duwamish River during severe rainstorms. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Andrew Wheeler, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Acting Administrator, arrives to talk to reporters, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, after touring the Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station in Seattle, a project funded by a low-interest loan from the EPA. The facility will treat millions of gallons of polluted stormwater that currently flows into Duwamish River during severe rainstorms. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Benjamin Tuggy holds a sign while listening to speakers during the first of three public hearings on the Trump administration's proposal to roll back car-mileage standards in a region with some of the nation's worst air pollution Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 in Fresno, Calif. The day-long session by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a means to gather public comment concerning the mileage plan, which would freeze U.S. mileage standards at levels mandated by the Obama administration for 2020, instead of letting them rise to 36 miles per gallon by 2025. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra talks during the first of three public hearings on the Trump administration's proposal to roll back car-mileage standards as California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols looks on, in a region with some of the nation's worst air pollution Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 in Fresno, Calif. The day-long session by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a means to gather public comment concerning the mileage plan, which would freeze U.S. mileage standards at levels mandated by the Obama administration for 2020, instead of letting them rise to 36 miles per gallon by 2025. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
In this July 27, 2018 photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed a major rollback of Obama-era regulations on coal-fired power plants, striking at one of the former administration’s legacy programs to rein in climate-changing fossil-fuel emissions. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)
In this July 4, 2018, photo, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt stands on the South Lawn of the White House during a picnic for military families in Washington. President Donald President Trump tweeted Thursday, July 5, he has accepted resignation of Pruitt. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Vice President Mike Pence, accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, foreground, President Donald Trump, and first lady Melania Trump, speaks at a briefing on this year's hurricane season at the Federal Emergency Management Agency Headquarters, Wednesday, June 6, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Activists gather outside Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's ceremonial office to protest the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's visit in Boise, Idaho on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Pruitt signed an agreement allowing Idaho to take over regulating pollution discharge into state lakes and rivers from the federal government. (AP Photo/Kimberlee Kruesi)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt listens to a question as he testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Pruitt goes before a Senate panel Wednesday as he faces a growing number of federal ethics investigations over his lavish spending on travel and security. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Chairman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska,, left, shakes hands with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt as he departs after testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Pruitt goes before a Senate panel Wednesday as he faces a growing number of federal ethics investigations over his lavish spending on travel and security. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Members of the audience wear matching shirts identifying themselves as mothers for clean air as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Members of the audience hold up signs that read "Fire Him" as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, left, testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Pruitt faced tough questioning Wednesday from senators about ethics investigations involving his travel spending, security precautions and large raises for young aides. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with automotive executives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, May 11, 2018, in Washington. From left, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, Ford CEO James Hackett, Trump, and White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Gov. Jerry Brown discusses a lawsuit filed by 17 states and the District of Columbia over the Trump administration's plans to scrap vehicle emission standards during a news conference Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has moved to roll back tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles manufactured between 2022 and 2025. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
An aide holds a binder as he sites behind Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt during his testimony on the EPA FY2019 budget request during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Capitol Hill, Thursday, April 26, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump arrives to speak during an event on tax policy in the Rose Garden of the White House, Thursday, April 12, 2018, in Washington. Trump is ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to move faster on processing air pollution permits for businesses. A White House memorandum issued Thursday, April 12, instructs the EPA to take final action on Clean Air Act permit applications within one year. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2018, file photo, part of President Donald Trump's 160-page budget summary for fiscal year 2019 that deals with the Environmental Protection Agency and that mentions the term "Climate Change" is photographed in Washington. U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam on Monday, March 12, 2018, ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complete the designations by the end of April. The term "Climate Change" is only mentioned once in the name of a science program marked for elimination at the EPA. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File)
President Donald Trump joined by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, left, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, center, waves as he arrives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, for a meeting with state and local officials about infrastructure. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
From left, Charlotte (N.C.) Mayor Vi Lyles, Carolyn Goodman, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, President Donald Trump, Vicksburg (Miss.) Mayor George Flaggs, Jr., Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Esteban Bovo, Jr., Miami-Dade County, Fla., Commissioner, and Wichita (Kan.) Mayor Jeff Longwell, participate in an infrastructure meeting in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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“There’s been an attack on the EPA from a lot of directions ― an attack on EPA science, an attack on our regulations, and an attack on the workers who actually do the work,” said Dreyfus, who is also Local 1236 president for the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing EPA workers.

Asked about the union’s efforts, an agency spokesperson said, “EPA has established, and continues to promote, a culture of scientific integrity for all of its employees. This policy provides a framework intended to ensure scientific integrity throughout the EPA and promote scientific and ethical standards.”

Career employees at a number of multiple federal agencies doing scientific work have felt squeezed by a White House that’s cozy with big business. Headed by a climate change denier, the Trump administration has sidelined researchers and diluted the role of science in writing regulations, prompting many longtime federal workers to quit or retire as their work was undone.

The White House has made some of its most aggressive regulatory rollbacks at the EPA, often in clear conflict with the scientific record. 

The agency has been trying to spike or delay dozens of environmental regulations, and one of its high-ranking officials gave a presentation at a fringe confab for climate deniers. Even stocked with Trump appointees, the EPA’s science advisory board recently criticized proposals that would weaken stream and wetland protections, saying that what the administration seeks to do “neglects established science.”

The regulatory rollback has been intertwined with what many agency workers see as an attack on collective bargaining rights. 

I’ve never seen staffing levels cut this much, research stalled and morale at an all-time low.Marie Owens Powell, an EPA employee

Last summer the EPA unilaterally implemented a union contract that cut back on agency employees’ telework opportunities and booted union officials from their offices. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against agency leadership, claiming they didn’t bargain in good faith before forcing the contract on employees. The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which referees such disputes in the federal government, ultimately determined that the agency had bargained in bad faith.

The American Federation of Government Employees will try to negotiate a new contract covering 7,500 EPA workers starting Tuesday. Marie Owens Powell, an underground storage tank enforcement officer in Philadelphia, said she and other workers plan to present their bill of rights to the agency to remind the administration of the EPA’s mission. 

“We needed some kind of vehicle ... so these employees would feel like they had a voice,” said Powell, who is a member of the union committee that is bargaining with the agency. “As an employee for the past 27 years, I’ve never seen staffing levels cut this much, research stalled and morale at an all-time low.”

Powell said one of the biggest problems she’s seen is the exit of agency veterans, which has foisted work onto less experienced employees. “That institutional knowledge takes a long time to rebuild,” she said. “There are folks feeling so overwhelmed right now.”

Some outside scientists are rallying around workers like Powell. Andrew A. Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said his group was signing onto their bill of rights because federal employees need “additional protections” under the current administration. He said the problems go beyond the EPA and exist “across agencies,” including the Energy and Interior departments.

“We continually hear stories, issues with scientific integrity, with work being suppressed or [censored], or the fact that professional staff are not in the room when a policy proposal is developed,” Rosenberg said.

As HuffPost previously reported, the Trump administration has worked hard to weaken federal unions and water down job protections for government employees. The White House issued sweeping executive orders aimed at peeling back collective bargaining rights and making it easier to fire federal workers. Once those orders got tied up in court, the administration tried to achieve the same goals at the bargaining table with unions like the American Federation of Government Employees. 

That union says it conducted a survey of its members working at the EPA, and 90% said they do not trust the agency to bargain in good faith this time around.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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