Have you ever left a job where you were tempted to tell off your boss on your way out? After working for a quarter century at the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Cox didn’t hold his tongue.
On his last day, the Bainbridge Island toxicologist sent a scorcher of a letter to the new boss, Trump-appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. It begins:
March 31, 2017
Dear Administrator Pruitt,
My name is Michael Cox. Today is my last day after working at EPA for over 25 years.
Cox reads me his letter while we sit on a bench at Waterfront Park on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle. The park looks out over Eagle Harbor, much of which is a toxic-waste Superfund site the EPA has been trying to clean up since the time Cox started working for the agency.
I am writing this note because I, along with many EPA staff, are becoming increasingly alarmed about the direction of EPA under your leadership.
It’s his first week as a retiree. The letter he’s reading was the last thing he produced as a federal employee.
I have worked under six administrations with political appointees leading EPA from both parties. This is the first time I remember staff openly dismissing and mocking the environmental policies of an administration and by extension, you.
Morale at EPA is the lowest since I started in 1987.
The Trump administration is proposing to cut EPA’s budget by 31 percent, a deeper cut than at any other major agency. If Congress grants the White House’s wishes, EPA efforts to fight climate change and clean up Puget Sound would be eliminated. A total of 56 EPA programs would get the ax. Staff would be shrunk back down to 1984 levels, when the US economy was half as big as it is today.
Only 2 of 11 Trump appointees at EPA have experience in environmental protection or regulation, according to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University; 7 have ties to fossil fuel companies. Five have openly denied or stated doubt about the science behind climate change, while 9 have expressed ideological opposition to environmental regulation in general.
EPA spokesperson and Trump administration appointee Jahan Wilcox declined to comment on Cox or the criticisms his letter raises.
Speaking on CNBC last month about carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming, Scott Pruitt said, “No, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. We don’t know that yet. We need to continue the review and analysis.”
It was surprising, no, shocking when you stated on national television that carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change. This is settled science, and we have too many other important scientific issues to investigate related to climate change to waste our time debating this issue.
After that CNBC interview (and after Cox’s letter as well), Pruitt softened his science-denying stance somewhat in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News. He still did not acknowledge the scientific understanding that the climate is being altered primarily by human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. “The climate is changing, and human activity contributes to that change in some measure,” Pruitt told Wallace. “The real issue is how much we contribute to it and measuring that with precision.”
Elections have consequences
Cox told me he understands that elections have consequences, that policies change with each administration.
However, I, and many staff, firmly believe the policies this Administration is advancing are contrary to what the majority of the American people, who pay our salaries, want EPA to accomplish, which are to ensure the air their children breathe is safe; the land they live, play, and hunt on to be free of toxic chemicals; and the water they drink, the lakes they swim in, and the rivers they fish in to be clean.
Cox said what pushed him to write the letter was the "poke in the eye" of President Trump’s first visit to EPA headquarters, on March 28. Flanked by coal miners and cabinet officials, Trump signed executive orders aimed at boosting coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, and blocking the Obama administration’s biggest climate effort, the Clean Power Plan.
“It’s good to see some coal miners here at the EPA,” Pruitt said. “The President is setting a new pathway forward that’s going to literally make sure that we transform our economy, grow jobs and also protect our environment, and it’s an exciting day.”
“That is what this all about: bringing back our jobs, bringing back our dreams and making America wealthy again,” Trump said. “I also want to thank the dedicated public servants who are with us this afternoon. You’re doing important work to protect our health and public resources. So important.”
“We’re ending the theft of American prosperity and rebuilding our beloved country,” Trump summed up.
None of the officials on stage that day at EPA mentioned climate change.
We were frankly insulted that the president would come to EPA to announce that he is overturning the work to battle the most urgent environmental problem of our generation – climate change. It was beyond comprehension that an administration could be so arrogant and callous.
In response to the executive orders signed that day, a group of 75 U.S. mayors wrote to Trump, “Today, one in fifty American jobs is now in the solar sector, surpassing employment in oil, gas, and coal extraction combined.”
Cox said he’s under no illusions that one retiring employee’s letter will influence an administration that is heading full steam in the opposite direction.
“I felt so strongly that, if I wouldn't have said something, I would have felt that I didn't do everything that I could,” Cox said. “What little it will matter – and it probably doesn't matter at all – it was my little piece of what I could do as I was walking out the door.”
In the final years of his EPA career, he worked on climate change for EPA’s Region 10, which spans Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
“I realized that for many years I had been complacent and hadn't got politically active,” he said. “Now that I'm not working for EPA, I'm going to get more active and join, especially on climate change. I feel very strongly about climate change, and so I'm definitely going to get more involved now.”
As for the EPA, what programs survive, shrink or end is ultimately up to Congress, which will hash out those questions in the coming months.
In his letter, Cox invites the head of the EPA to come to the Pacific Northwest or Alaska to see how a changing climate is already rewriting landscapes and people’s lives. But since he’s no longer working for Uncle Sam, Cox expects someone else will have to be the tour guide.
Read Michael Cox's letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt:
John Ryan loves getting story tips. He can be reached at email@example.com or with the encrypted WhatsApp or Signal apps at 1-401-405-1206 (whistleblowers, never do so from a work device, account or location). Snail mail is also a secure way to reach him confidentially: KUOW, 4518 University Way NE #310, Seattle, WA 98105. Don't put your return address on the outside.