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At Trump's EPA, going to work can be an act of defiance

As California’s top energy regulator, Michael Picker has an absurdly busy job. So it was a little surprising to find him recently near a Washington, D.C., metro stop, randomly handing out help-wanted fliers in the middle of a workday.

But with morale plummeting at the Environmental Protection Agency since President Trump took office, Picker saw in that patch of sidewalk near its headquarters an opportunity — and perhaps a publicity stunt — to lure top-shelf talent that never before would have considered bolting from the agency.

The dim outlook at the EPA is weighing heavily on its 15,000 scientists, engineers, investigators and other employees, many of whom perceive their life’s work to be under assault from within. The Trump administration is moving as quickly as it can to diminish the place, with plans to cripple the EPA science office, stop the agency’s climate change work, cut its Superfund program in half and outright eliminate 50 programs, down to the voluntary Energy Star stickers that help consumers locate efficient appliances.

It all has Jared Blumenfeld’s phone ringing off the hook. “The number one call I get everyday is, ‘Jared, can you help us find work somewhere else,’” said Blumenfeld, who ran the regional office of the EPA encompassing California, Nevada and Arizona until last May.

His advice? Don’t quit, fight. “I try to tell people that staying and doing your job at this point in history is an act of resistance, that if they leave, we will wind up with gaps in the system.”

That message is not always well received from employees now working for an administration that has openly accused the agency of producing junk science, pursuing a political agenda and abusing its authority.

“It is very hard to be here right now,” said a senior EPA official who has been with the agency for 30 years. The Trump administration is “battling with basic scientific facts…. There might have been slow progress on things like climate change under Bush-Cheney, but this is outright turning things over completely on their head. I have never seen anything like it.”

Agency scientists watched in dismay last week as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected their finding that a pesticide called chlorpyrifos must be removed from the market because exposure to high doses could inhibit the brain development of children. The day before, Trump was at agency headquarters to pillory its years-long work on climate change and sign an order killing the signature global warming programs that agency employees had invested tens of thousands of hours developing.

On Capitol Hill, the House was passing a law that doctors and public health officials warn would cut EPA scientists off from medical data they need to protect the public from toxic pollutants. Climate skeptics from far outside the scientific mainstream dominated the witness panel at a House committee hearing the same day, during which they encouraged lawmakers to assemble teams of researchers within the federal government whose job would be to raise doubts about the scientific consensus on global warming.

Even Bill Ruckelshaus, who was appointed by Richard Nixon to be the first EPA chief and then recruited by Ronald Reagan to restore it when the public grew angry that clean air and water were slipping away on Reagan’s watch, said he had never seen anything like the tumult the agency faced now.

“It is going to set us back in ways we can’t even predict,” he said. Ruckelshaus is among those beseeching longtime employees to ride out the chaos.

“My advice is easy to give and hard to take,” said Ruckelshaus, who worries the important government work of those experts decamping to the less stressful environs of academia, nonprofits or even state government will just stop. “Hang in there.”

The concerns of old-timers extend far beyond the climate work under attack. Even in the best of times, Blumenfeld said, staffing the teams that do specialized work like detect radioactive fallout or respond to oil refinery explosions can be exceedingly tough. Now people in key positions, he said, are packing up at the same time the administration is looking to shrink its workforce by 3,000, and there is no guarantee any job will be filled.

Under Trump’s budget blueprint, the EPA took the biggest hit, losing nearly a third of its funding.

Among those who quit the agency recently was Mustafa Ali, who launched the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice in 1992 and has served under Democratic and Republican administrations. Trump is proposing to eliminate that office altogether. “Some of the actions going on now are mind-boggling,” Ali said.

Legions of data wizards and archivists have joined an independent effort to preserve what they can of the work produced by the agency in recent years. They worry it will be erased. The nonprofit Environmental Data and Governance Initiative is holding events across the country where coders are working to save every byte of scientific data they can. The group is also tracking changes on the EPA’s website, where it was among the first to discover the word “science” had been removed from the mission statement of the agency’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Workers at EPA headquarters in Washington, in an act of defiance, fished out of storage a 1980s T-shirt memorializing how they helped force out Reagan’s first EPA chief, Anne Gorsuch, who was at war with her workforce for her entire short tenure. Now her son, Neil M. Gorsuch, is Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

EPA employees have been heartened by the cookies some well-wishers have sent, including individual notes written by scores of Americans appreciative of their work and unhappy to see them under siege.

But there is little optimism that Trump is going to reconsider his approach, as Reagan did.

“I am really concerned that because of all the rhetoric and because of the tone of the politics now, that we don’t have the public support we had in the 1980s,” said Tom Burke, who headed the EPA’s Office of Research and Development until inauguration day this year. “I don’t think in 1982 the polluters were quite as well organized and quite as influential as they are now.”

Employees still at the agency hold onto what hope they can. Some have taken note of the endurance of the EPA climate change page, which has remained online long after the one on the White House website disappeared.

“We have people constantly checking to see if it is still up,” said a mid-level EPA employee in California, whose department head has not yet been replaced by a Pruitt hire. “People will know when things here are changing based on the information on that website.”

But while the climate page was still up, the employee said a group of workers in California focused on climate change adaptation decided not to wait for the next shoe to drop. Soon after the election, they changed the name of their program. It no longer mentions climate change.

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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