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Cuts to Environmental Monitoring “Willfully Blinding” the Nation

Scientific American reports that many science policy experts are "startled" by the Trump administration’s proposed budget for 2018 that envisions dramatic cuts in funds for monitoring air and water quality, climate change and more.

Pres. Donald Trump’s administration could be willfully blinding itself—and the nation—when it comes to the environment…

[T]he consequences of weakening U.S. environmental monitoring abilities would be serious for everyone, says Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program, echoing other policy experts. “So many people need our environmental intelligence," she says. “It’s saving lives, saving businesses money and reducing harm.”

Noting that the budget proposes cutting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31 percent, which would eliminate 3,200 EPA positions, and would reduce its Office of Research and Development budget by almost half, Kei Koizumi, visiting scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says, “Even if the agency is able to get data about the environment, it wouldn’t have the scientists and research conditions to make sense of it.” The article also says that the EPA cuts would affect grants to outside groups that track the environment.

EPA Stops Collecting Some Methane Information

Another reduction in information gathering: EPA Drops Request for Methane Information from Oil and Gas Industry, By Ellen M. Gilmer, Scientific American (March 3, 2017). Companies are no longer required to provide information about onshore equipment and controls that could reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Mark Brownstein, vice president of climate and energy for the Environmental Defense Fund, said “Administrator Pruitt is saying it’s OK for industry to withhold basic information on pollution from oil and gas operations from the American people.” As recently as last year the oil industry complained that the EPA needed more information before it could regulate methane emissions. The new rule ensures that the EPA will not have that information.

EPA mirrors its own pre-Trump website

Gizmodo and TechCrunch are reporting that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put a mirror of its own website online — a “snapshot” from January 19, the day before Trump was sworn in as president.

  • The EPA posted a backup of its website dated just before inauguration day, by Devin Coldewey techcrunch (Feb 16, 2017).

    “It’s still technically an EPA website, and so could be removed through executive action, but the fact that it was much-requested via FOIA should make it pretty robust against takedown.”

  • The EPA Just Posted A Mirror Website Of The One Trump Plans To Censor by Matt Novak, Gizmodo (Feb 17, 2017).

    “… after individual efforts to backup the website, along with plenty of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the EPA just posted a snapshot of the site as it existed on 19 January 2017, the day before Trump was sworn in.

    “‘The genius of this approach is that, because they were required by federal law to post the mirror site (because it’s a frequently requested record), it’s harder now to force it down,’ writer and anthologist Russ Kick told Gizmodo over email.”

  • 19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/

    “This is not the current EPA website. To navigate to the current EPA website, please go to www.epa.gov. This website is historical material reflecting the EPA website as it existed on January 19, 2017. This website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.”

Gizmodo reports that “there are elements of the website that aren’t backed up because of size constraints” and provides links to those sections of the current epa.gov website.

EPA cuts attendance at Alaska environment forum

NPR reports that Trump administration transition officials ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cut in half its staff attending the Alaska Forum on the Environment.

NPR reports that EPA transition official Doug Ericksen blamed the cutback on excessive travel costs even though some of the attendees cut work just blocks away from the meeting site.

The Alaska Dispatch News said that the cuts came just three days before the Forum, which has met for at least 19 years. The meeting agenda included the effects of climate change on subsistence fishing and how to help coastal communities threatened by erosion and sea-level rise decide whether, and when, to relocate.

The news quotes Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club:

This raises important questions about government transparency and public access to important information.

EPA Provides Misleading Assurance of Information Preservation

An email sent by the press office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) incorrectly claims that “federal record keeping requirements” ensure that information withdrawn from the EPA website will remain “available to the public.”

Doug Ericksen, the head of communications for the Trump transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, responded to reports of potential political vetting of scientific research at the EPA as "inaccurate" in an email sent by the EPA press office.

In that email, Ericksen said:

"Claims that science and research will be deleted are simply not true. Because there are federal record keeping requirements, there is a process in place for archive Federal website information so it remains available to the public if it is removed from the active pages."

This greatly oversimplifies federal record keeping requirements in a misleading way. There is no guarantee that website information removed by an agency will remain available to the public.

Existing federal record keeping requirements do not necessarily guarantee that information that is removed by a new administration from the EPA website will be either deposited with the National Archives (NARA) or that any that are deposited will be made available online by NARA.

It will be up to the EPA to determine whether or not the information it removes from its website fits the definitions that require its deposit with NARA. The presence of information on the EPA website does not automatically make that information a "record" that falls under the Federal Records Act [Public Law 81-754, 64 Stat. 578, TITLE V-Federal Records (64 Stat. 583)].

The disposition of EPA web content is guided by publicly available records schedules (List of EPA Records Schedules in Final Status, and EPA Records Schedules in Final Status), but, according to the NARA Guidance on Managing Web Records Background, it is ultimately up to the agency to determine what information fits the guidelines and what information does not.

Even if web-based public information is deposited, NARA does not guarantee that it will make that information available online.

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