Elizabeth Southerland had a distinguished, 30-year career at the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during which she held numerous senior positions, including director of science and technology in the Office of Water. So she had a front-row seat early last year as Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, took power with an unwavering mission: To undo virtually every environmental achievement of the Obama administration, to slash the agency’s staff, and to give industry unprecedented power over the nation’s environmental rules.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Southerland recalls the “utter contempt” that Pruitt and his team had for the agency’s career staff, the unfettered access that industry enjoyed at EPA headquarters, and the smear campaign that the EPA waged against her after she spoke out upon her retirement in July 2017. She says that although Pruitt is now gone — ousted after numerous ethical lapses — his successor, Andrew Wheeler, is every bit as committed to Pruitt’s agenda of environmental deregulation.
Still, Southerland finds cause for hope, pointing to court rulings overturning the Trump administration’s environmental actions and an effort by present and former EPA employees to plan for the revival the agency after Trump. She says that one such group, the Lazarus Project, is working “to prepare a transition for hopefully a new administration in 2020 that can immediately set to work rebuilding the agency, just as this administration came in with the very detailed plan on how to dismantle it.”
Yale Environment e360: You worked for about seven months under the Trump administration and during that time the Obama-era rule that prevented coal plants from dumping toxic wastewater into waterways was suspended. As the director of science and technology in the Office of Water, what was that like for you?
Elizabeth Southerland: Without exaggerating, it was fairly traumatic for me and my whole staff. We had worked on that rule for over eight years through very extensive data collection, both from industry and from our own-data collection services. We had also had multiple opportunities for the industry and the public to comment on this rule during this prolonged eight-year process. And what we found happened under the new Trump administration is that Scott Pruitt met with coal industry people and the next day he announced that he was going to reconsider the rule and was going to delay its implementation immediately without ever discussing it, for even five minutes, with those of us who had worked eight years to develop this rule. So I was aware right at the beginning that that’s how this administration was going to operate, the repeal of everything the Obama administration did.
e360: I imagine you had communication with Pruitt regarding this suspension?
Southerland: We immediately requested a chance to brief Scott Pruitt. We never heard back from him. All we saw was a draft press release that he had his press office apparently draft that said that he had made the decision to reconsider [the rule] and was going to delay its implementation for several years while he revisited the whole idea of any regulation on coal-fired power plants. So the briefing for Pruitt on this occurred only after he had announced to the public that he was going to delay and reconsider it.
“There was utter contempt for the career staff and the commitment to do whatever industry asked them to do.”
e360: That must have been disheartening.
Southerland: After eight years of work, I would say disheartening is the appropriate adjective.
e360: There has been coverage of other EPA employees who’ve wrestled with the decision of whether to stay or leave the agency after President Trump was inaugurated. What went into your decision to retire in the summer of 2017?
Southerland: I actually was planning to retire anyway for family reasons. But I announced my opposition to the administration publicly by releasing my retirement farewell speech through the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and that retirement speech really went viral with the press. When I retired it was an early warning to the public about all that they were going to lose under this administration.
e360: As you mentioned, the day you retired you released a statement criticizing the Trump administration’s running of the EPA, including its requirement that any new regulation be accompanied by the repeal of two existing ones. You also criticized the proposed rollback of many existing rules. You wrote in that statement: “Today, the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth.” Tell me more about that.
Southerland: What I perceived is that the new administration came into the EPA with complete contempt for the career staff in the agency. Not once did they talk to any of us about all these rules that they’ve been requested by industry to repeal. And instead, Scott Pruitt met solely with industry representatives and again, just as they did in the case of the coal-fired power plant rule that I worked on, in every case, they met solely with industry representatives and then announced to staff that they were going to reconsider and delay all these rules that have been years of in the making. So it was the complete and utter contempt for the career staff and the further commitment to do whatever industry asked them to do without question.
“It’s not just that the actions of this administration failed to follow science and evidence and facts, but they are also in many cases unlawful.”
e360: Regardless of science?
Southerland: Regardless of science and regardless of the law. There are many, many lawsuits on the actions that have been taken by the EPA to date. And already the courts are rendering decisions against the EPA’s actions. There are over six rules that the EPA has delayed because it wanted to repeal them and those delays have all been overturned by the courts as not conforming with law. So it’s not just that the actions of this administration failed to follow science and evidence and facts, but they are also in many cases unlawful.
e360: Following the release of your statement, the EPA press office issued a statement of its own to reporters in which your retirement benefit was grossly inflated. The organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, filed a lawsuit on your behalf to obtain EPA internal communications regarding how to counterpunch. Those emails were released in July. What did they reveal?
Southerland: It was an amazing, though heavily redacted, pile of emails that we finally got to see. Again, under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act, I should have been allowed to get those emails immediately. But the agency continued to stall and stall, so we actually had to file a lawsuit to get what was our right to receive months earlier. And what we found from the heavily redacted emails is that the day my retirement speech was released to the public through the Washington Post article and through an Internet posting by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the entire political appointee press office engaged in an effort to devise a counter attack to discredit me.
And what they came up with is two false statements that they then contacted multiple right-wing media and had them publish. And the two false statements were, number one, that all federal employees, after only 20 years of work, receive their full salary for the rest of their lives. So number one that’s not true. And number two, they selected the one year in which my salary was amplified by a Presidential Distinguished Rank Award. Now that’s an award that less than one percent of any of the senior executives in all of government ever receive. So that award is 35 percent of your salary. They took that award, added it to my base salary and then maintained that that was the salary I was receiving for the rest of my life after having retired from EPA. Again, two false statements, but it was done to really build up this sense of outrage and contempt towards me and towards all federal employees.
e360: In your retirement statement, you also criticized “an industry deregulation approach based on abandonment of the polluter-pays principle that underlies all environmental statues.” Do you think that will continue in the same way under acting EPA Administrator Andrew?
Southerland: Absolutely. There’s no indication that he is going to curtail the deregulation process. And again, because so many of these rules that they’re repealing were years in the making and involved years of data collection, not only on the environmental benefits but the cost of those regulations, they apparently cannot come up with a lawful reason to do these repeals. So generally, they’re putting these repeals out on the basis of they have a policy difference from the Obama Administration. And I don’t believe that kind of policy difference will be sustained in all the litigation that’s already underway. Right now, there are over 150 lawsuits against just the actions that have been taken in the first two years by the EPA. And again, the courts already are starting to find in favor of those opposing the repeals.
e360: You served not only in the EPA’s water program, but also in the Superfund program. Wheeler was recently quoted as saying that Superfund is a priority for the administration. Are you heartened by that?
Southerland: No, I’m not, because, again, actions speak louder than words. And when both Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler say that the Superfund program is a priority, there are a huge number of positions that have gone unfilled, not only in the program office that oversees the cleanups for Superfund, but also on the enforcement side, where they actually need to take legal action to ensure that the industries responsible for contaminating these sites and causing these Superfund crises of public health, have to actually pay for the cleanup rather than the taxpayer. So again, the fact that they are not filling all these important positions in the program office and in the enforcement office indicates to me that they really do not think that the Superfund program is a priority.
e360: Wheeler has said, “My priority is recruiting and maintaining the right staff. The right people for our mission rather than the total number of full time employees.” What’s your take on that?
Southerland: All I can say is, right now the agency is smaller than it was since the 1980s when so many of the statutes that we’re implementing now were not even in effect, so it is clearly an undersized agency for the enormous statutory responsibilities that it has. I think they’re going to continue to let the agency lose people.
“Whatever industry groups ask for, [Wheeler] will do without question and without consultation with career staff.”
e360: I’m assuming you keep in touch with some of your former colleagues at EPA. What’s the temperature around the water cooler like these days at the agency?
Southerland: There’s just a complete morale bust. I mean almost everyone believes that the change from Pruitt to Wheeler is one of just no more outward corruption like Scott Pruitt displayed with his use of the perks of his office. Andrew Wheeler certainly is not doing that. But they do believe that Andrew Wheeler is just as devoted to carrying out every request that industry gives them. And so whatever the chemical industry, or the oil and gas industry, or the agribusiness groups ask for, he will do without question and without consultation with career staff.
e360: What are you hopes for the agency, perhaps not in the near term, but looking out a few years from now?
Southerland: There are a number of groups that have formed that are already working on a plan for the future for the EPA. What we certainly are looking at is the importance of better managing the public awareness of how important the agency is and how important it is to have a staff that’s capable of carrying out the statutory requirements that they have. So these different groups — one of them that I’m involved in is called the Lazarus Project — involve academics and former EPA officials and people who are very active in the environmental field. They are working to prepare a transition for hopefully a new administration in 2020 that can immediately set to work rebuilding the agency, just as this administration came in with the very detailed plan on how to dismantle it.