WASHINGTON — Career employees departed the EPA at a fast clip during the Trump administration, but interviews with some of those who left during the Republican’s presidency indicated they are happy with how things look so far under new administrator Michael Regan.
Nearly 1,000 people left the agency after 2016, according to the fiscal 2022 budget proposal by the Biden White House. And the Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that more than 670 of those departures were of scientific experts.
Although age drove many of the departures, there was also a sense that such experts were being shut out of the policymaking process, say many of those now-former EPA career staff. And that leaves Regan, the former North Carolina environmental regulator who was sworn in March 11 as President Joe Biden’s EPA administrator, with serious morale-boosting to do.
“The morale was so low because there was political interference in the scientific work,” said Betsy Southerland, who retired in August 2017 after more than three decades with the EPA. “It’s the combination of both the clear view that there were strictly political decisions being made rather than public health decisions being made and then, secondly, being unable to influence or modify that in any respect because you literally did not have a seat at the table.”
Southerland served as director of the Office of Science and Technology in the EPA Office of Water. She and other EPA career staff who left the agency during the Trump years say Regan is off to a good start.
“There was almost like an immediate ‘Oh, we can talk again’ sort of sigh of relief,” said Stan Meiburg, who worked at the EPA for nearly 40 years. “And the new incoming administration recognizes the importance for building strong ties with the career staff.”
Meiburg was career staff for most of his time at EPA but also served as acting EPA deputy administrator, a political appointment.
It might also help that the Biden administration’s fiscal 2022 budget plan, which cited all those Trump-era departures, proposed a 21% boost in EPA funding, including money intended to recruit new hires to fill its depleted ranks.
A Congressional Research Service report from last year indicated the number of “full-time equivalent” employees at the agency stood at more than 15,000 for fiscal 2017 but was down to 14,172 for fiscal 2020.
The UCS analysis specifically examined scientific staff and found that the overall level of those experts at the agency was at 11,647 in mid-2017 but had fallen to 10,587 by the end of 2019 before rebounding somewhat by the end of 2020.