Scientist says EPA staff pressured her to change testimony to Congress

Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 18, 2017 before being confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

J. Scott Applewhite, AP

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota scientist who leads an Environmental Protection Agency scientific advisory board says she was pressured by the agency's chief of staff to change her testimony before Congress to downplay the Trump administration's decision not to reappoint half of the board's members.

Emails show that EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson asked Deborah Swackhamer, an environmental chemist who recently retired from the University of Minnesota, to stick to the agency's stance that the decision on appointments had not yet been made.

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Environmental chemist Deborah Swackhamer chairs the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors.

University of Minnesota

Now Democratic leaders of the House Science Committee have asked EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins to investigate Jackson's actions, which they say were "inappropriate and may have violated federal regulations" that ensure a citizen's right to communicate with Congress.

Democrats on the panel invited Swackhamer to testify at a May 23 hearing. She chairs the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors, but stressed that she was speaking solely as a science and policy expert, not on behalf of the EPA.

In her testimony, she noted that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt did not renew half of the board's 18 executive committee members for second terms, and that an agency spokesman cited a need for more representation from industry. She said that decision "may lead to the perception that science is being politicized and marginalized within EPA." Any appointees "from the regulated community must be esteemed scientists with no conflict of interest," she added.

Jackson sent Swackhamer two emails the day before the hearing -- after she had already submitted her embargoed testimony -- with a page of official talking points meant to counter "stories in the newspapers" about the appointments. He said that decision "has not yet been made," underlining that phrase for emphasis.

Swackhamer did not immediately reply to a request for comment from The Associated Press on Wednesday. But she told the New York Times she felt "stunned" and "bullied" by Jackson's effort to get her to change her testimony. And she told Minnesota Public Radio on Wednesday that she's been speaking out because the appointments are a symptom of "the erosion of the value of science at EPA and throughout the rest of the federal government."

Board members typically are top academic experts tasked with helping to ensure that the agency's scientists follow established best practices for the integrity of its science. Experts are limited to two terms, but Swackhamer has said members finishing their first terms typically got reappointed before.

Three Democratic leaders on the committee -- Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, of Texas, Suzanne Bonamici, of Oregon, and Donald Beyer, of Virginia -- wrote to the EPA's inspector general this week to demand an investigation. Countering Jackson's claim, they said the EPA's acting assistant administrator for research and development, Robert Kavlock, had been informed two weeks earlier, apparently by Pruitt's office, that a decision had been made not to renew the nine board members' appointments.

In a separate letter to Pruitt, the Democrats said they were "deeply troubled about the possible attempts to interfere with Dr. Swackhamer's testimony to Congress. Dr. Swackhamer's key message in her testimony was that politics should not be used to undermine science, and she delivered this message while EPA faced accusations of doing exactly that."

The Republican chairman of the committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, issued a statement Wednesday defending the EPA, saying the agency was just performing "due diligence" to ensure that Swackhamer's testimony was accurate. The committee also released the emails in question, including Kavlock's email to the affected board members informing them that their appointments would not be renewed.