Some Democrats in Congress say President Donald Trump's administration has broken the law in its handling of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Trump administration has put billions in grants and contracts on hold at the EPA and ordered employees at the EPA and other agencies not to speak publicly or to Congress.
Those measures could be short-lived – EPA transition spokesperson and Washington state Sen. Doug Ericksen told E&E News the spending hold might be lifted as soon as Jan. 27.
But with Trump and his team having pledged to slash the EPA's budget, the freeze has alarmed scientists and others who depend on those grants for their work.
Nearly half the EPA's $8 billion budget goes to local governments, tribes, universities and nonprofits to do the on-the-ground work of protecting the environment.
That sum includes $186 million in Washington state for the fiscal year ending this June, with about $28 million of that amount going to help clean up Puget Sound.
"If you ask a tribal member or shellfish grower about water quality, they will say, those programs matter," Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor told KUOW. "Every day where there is uncertainty, that matters to their business."
"We do depend a lot on EPA grants," Cathy Cochrane with the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency, said.
"Current grants, that are already dedicated, are not in danger," Cochrane said. "Just new grants going forward."
At least that was her understanding, she said.
"Details are still really fuzzy about what exactly will happen," Cochrane said.
Two days before Trump took his oath of office, a task force of nine agencies including the EPA released a five-year federal action plan for Puget Sound. That plan's relevance, and funding, under the new administration are unclear.
Power of the purse
In a letter sent Thursday to Trump, Kilmer and other Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee called the administration's moves "unprecedented and unacceptable."
The Democrats said they would ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether Trump's actions violate appropriations laws.
"To some extent, it runs afoul of the role of legislative branch in controlling power of the purse," Kilmer said.
Republican Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn was at his party's Congressional retreat in Philadelphia on Thursday and not available to comment, according to his spokesperson.
On Wednesday, a group of 12 Senate Democrats, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, asked Trump to immediately reverse directives prohibiting EPA and other agency scientists from communicating with Congress, local officials and the public.
"As members of Congress, we wanted to ensure that you are aware that it is against the law to interfere with federal employees communicating with Congress," they wrote. "It is also against the law to retaliate against career federal officials for following lawful policy directives."
The ranking Democrats on the House oversight and energy committees also complained to the White House that its gag orders violated whistleblower protection laws.
While the Obama administration also exercised strict control over EPA scientists' communications, the Trump administration appears to be taking message control to a new level.
Ericksen told NPR's Nathan Rott that, during the transition period, scientists' work would go through an unspecified internal vetting process before being shared outside the agency.
“We’ll take a look at what’s happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that’s going to reflect the new administration,” Ericksen said. He declined to say whether EPA would continue to censor its scientists after the transition period or whether the agency would scrub scientific information on climate change from its website.
EPA's scientific integrity policy "prohibits managers and other Agency leadership from intimidating or coercing scientists to alter scientific data, findings or professional opinions."
In Olympia, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state would continue its efforts to reduce carbon pollution and fight climate change. "We will not be slowed one iota by the foolishness that we're hearing out of the White House when it comes to this existential threat to our state," Inslee told reporters.
EPA headquarters' press office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Letter from Rep. Derek Kilmer and other Congressional Democrats to Pres. Trump:
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