After a spate of exits, what is the future of the EPA?


HARI SREENIVASAN: A new report from the investigative journalism organization ProPublica in conjunction with the New York Times reveals that the Trump administration is shrinking the size of the Environmental Protection Agency just as it said it would. Among the findings – 700 people have left the agency since the start of the Trump administration, 200 of whom are scientists and another 96 are environmental protection specialists. Lisa Friedman of The New York Times joins us to help explain what this means for the agency. Lisa, 700 people sounds like a lot of people and the goal is even higher right?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. I mean this is an agency of about 15,000 people that sounds like a lot but there also has been an incredible decrease since the Obama administration pushed by Republican budget cuts. When the Trump administration started they said they wanted to cut this agency by about 3,200 people and they're well on their way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right so what happens if, as all of these people have left, what are the repercussions? Is there less science being performed or are there is there a different type of response that the agency can provide after a disaster or perhaps before one?

LISA FRIEDMAN: About 700 people have left the agency since the beginning of the year through a combination of buyouts and retirements and some have just quit. We spoke to dozens of current and former EPA employees who are really worried that science is at risk at the agency. That their ability to understand how pesticides are affecting our air and water, how increased pollution can be abated are are the kinds of things that will increasingly be at risk. Not to mention their ability to to deal with big impact issues whether they are spills or fires or other things that create hazardous toxic issues for Americans.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the long term consequences for an agency like this because on the one hand you have some people who are close to retirement who are going to take a buyout or leave early. but then what happens to kind of that institutional knowledge and how it gets passed down to younger scientists?

LISA FRIEDMAN: It's a significant brain drain in part because it does not seem that it is getting passed down to younger scientists. People are leaving and whereas in past years they might put in younger employees who had mentors within the agency and could learn from their experience and grow and become the experts themselves, that's happening less and less. Increasingly these positions are just gone. I think this is in part a reflection of morale – both I and reporters at ProPublica with whom I did this story, you know we talked to many many employees in the agency. Former employees said to us we have been here through Republican and Democrat administrations alike and we have never seen an atmosphere like this where we feel our work is so devalued. There are many people in the administration who vehemently dispute that characterization of course but the scientists and the EPA employees we talked to, said that part of the large number of buyouts reflects not only the ability to retire a little early but also a sense that they feel that they are not going to be able to accomplish their mission under this administration.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright. Lisa Friedman of the New York Times joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.

LISA FRIEDMAN: Thanks so much.

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