EPA flap overtakes report on the state of Narragansett Bay – October 23, 2017

Sen. Jack Reed says he is “disheartened and disappointed that the Trump administration is preventing several EPA scientists, whose work is supported by taxpayer dollars, from publicly presenting their research and findings today.”

PROVIDENCE — The centerpiece of a science workshop on Monday was supposed to be the release of an exhaustive report that had been years in the making on the health of Narragansett Bay and threats that include climate change.

But the focus shifted to the intersection of science and politics when on Friday, without explanation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency canceled the speaking appearances of three of its scientists to discuss the findings in “The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed,” a 500-page report that was funded in part by the agency.

Organizers were left to speculate that the cancellation was tied to the planned discussion of climate change at the workshop and the stated views of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and others in the Trump administration that range from denying that the planet is warming at all to casting doubt on the contribution of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The peer review process is under attack when not all the voices can be heard,” said John King, chair of the science advisory committee for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, which coordinated the report. “Our job is to do good science to inform good policy. Let us do our job.”

In an emailed statement, the EPA said that it supports the work of the estuary program, having awarded it a $600,000 annual grant earlier this month, but the agency did not provide an explanation for the cancellation.

“EPA scientists are attending,” the statement said. “They simply are not presenting. It is not an EPA conference.”

Deborah Szaro, acting regional administrator for the EPA, who attended the afternoon workshop but did not speak, said afterward that the cancellation was due to “a simple miscommunication” within the agency that has been blown out of proportion.

“They are not being muzzled or put to the side,” she said of the scientists. “By the time we figured out what was going on, it was too late to rectify the situation.”

She commended the researchers who contributed to the report.

“All of these people in the room, we’ve worked with forever to understand the Bay and how it’s changing,” she said. “That’s what science is all about. We adjust and we adapt.”

But about two dozen protesters outside environmental group Save The Bay’s headquarters, where the event was hosted, accused the EPA of gagging its scientists.

“This is really a sign that the administration is exerting its control all the way down,” said J. Timmons Roberts, Ittleson professor of environmental studies at Brown University, who was among the demonstrators.

At a news conference before the workshop, each member of Rhode Island’s all-Democrat congressional delegation, criticized the agency’s decision. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said the EPA’s actions had overshadowed the significant progress documented by the report in reducing levels of bacteria and potentially harmful nutrients in the Bay.

“We should be here applauding progress,” he said. “However, I am disheartened and disappointed that the Trump administration is preventing several EPA scientists, whose work is supported by taxpayer dollars, from publicly presenting their research and findings today.”

He continued, “Now is not the time to turn a blind eye to what science is telling us, that climate change and other factors are influencing the health of this estuary.”

Curt Spalding, the regional EPA administrator under President Obama, also expressed disappointment at the agency’s lack of participation in the workshop.

“To not have them here is a very sad statement about where we are,” said Spalding, who was in the audience. “It’s incredibly sad to see science at EPA being undermined the way it is, not just on climate, but on things like toxics.”

During the workshop, the EPA scientists weren’t far from people’s minds. Robinson W. Fulweiler, a Boston University systems ecologist, gave the keynote speech in place of Autumn Oczkowski, a research ecologist at the EPA laboratory in Narragansett.

“I welcome the chance to lend my voice to my colleagues who can’t be here,” Fulweiler said in opening her talk.

At the end of the workshop, a visibly emotional King, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, asked the audience to give a round of applause to the three EPA scientists at the center of the furor: Oczkowski, EPA consultant Emily Shumchenia — one of King’s former students and a key contributor to the report — and postdoctoral fellow Rose Martin.

“This is a battle that’s going to be ongoing,” King said. “This is the first shot.”

akuffner@providencejournal.com

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