PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contributed research to “The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed,” but at the 11th hour the federal agency canceled presentations that were set to be delivered by three staff members at a workshop on Monday to discuss the 500-page report on current conditions in the bay and future threats that include climate change.
One of the scientists — Autumn Oczkowski, a research ecologist at the EPA laboratory in Narragansett — was set to deliver the keynote address at the workshop at Save The Bay’s headquarters in Providence. She will be replaced by Robinson W. Fulweiler, an ecosystems ecologist at Boston University, whose research has included a study on rising water temperatures in Narragansett Bay.
“Narragansett Bay is one of Rhode Island’s most important economic assets and the EPA won’t let its scientists talk with local leaders to plan for its future. Whatever you think about climate change, this kind of collaboration should be a no-brainer,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told The Washington Post Sunday night. “Muzzling our leading scientists benefits no one.”
The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, which directed the three-year research project that included work by 50 scientists from government agencies and academic institutions, was notified Friday afternoon that the EPA scientists would not be speaking.
Tom Borden, director of the estuary program, said that Wayne Munns, director of the Atlantic ecology division of the EPA’s Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, called him to deliver the news, but did not give an explanation.
“I’ve not received any clarity as to why it happened,” Borden said in an interview Sunday afternoon.
The cancellation was first reported by The New York Times. John King, chair of the estuary program’s science advisory committee, told the Times that he believed the scientists were being blocked from speaking because much of the workshop will be focused on climate change.
Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, and other members of the Trump administration have denied the role of carbon emissions in climate change.
In an interview Monday morning, hours before the workshop was set to begin, King, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, said that nothing he had heard over the weekend had convinced him that there was another reason behind the cancellation.
“They have not provided any explanation,” he said. “But what else could it be about?”
He said the cancellation undermines the scientific process.
“Pruitt has said on record that he wants to see more peer review of reports,” King said. “The key to that is having scientists getting together and talking.”
He continued, “As soon as you start trying to censor science, how do you keep it out of the realm of the political? This looks like the opening volley of the war on science.”
King and Borden both said that their understanding is that the EPA scientists will attend the workshop, but they will not present.
They will not be at an earlier news conference to officially release the report, according to what Borden and King were told, but none of them were scheduled to speak at that event. Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, which includes Whitehouse, a vocal critic of Pruitt, will participate in the news conference.
Besides Oczkowski, the other EPA scientists who were affected by the decision are Rose Martin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Narragansett lab, and Emily Shumchenia, a consultant with the EPA and a former student at URI under King.
Shumchenia, who wrote a chapter on the bay’s seafloor, was the only one of the three to contribute extensive work to the report, Borden said. Five other EPA scientists also contributed.
Borden emphasized that the estuary program has a very good relationship with the Narragansett lab, and in general with the EPA, which contributes funding to the program.
He also made clear that the report looks at a variety of factors influencing the health of Narragansett Bay.
“The changing conditions were certainly discussed throughout the report, but by no means was it only a climate change report,” he said.
King said he’s unsure whether anyone from the EPA will feel comfortable attending the workshop.
“It’s a little bit chilling,” he said.
Alex Kuffner is a reporter for The Providence (R.I.) Journal.