Interview: Meet the EPA Scientists Fighting to Save The EPA and the Environment
“It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrat or Republican, it matters if they care about the agency’s mission and they do everything they can to accomplish the mission,” John O’Grady, Save the U.S. EPA.
As each day seems to bring a new shakeup at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a campaign called Save the U.S. EPA is being waged by two organizations of unionized E.P.A. and federal government workers to preserve the integrity and capacity of the E.P.A.
We spoke with the national spokesperson of Save the U.S. EPA, John O’Grady who also served as president of an 8,000 member union of E.P.A. employees nationwide, the A.F.G.E. National Council #238.
Who is Behind Save the U.S. EPA?
The A.F.G.E. National Council #238 and the American Federation of Government Employees (A.F.G.E.) together launched the Save the U.S. EPA campaign to stop efforts “from continuing to destroy the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by putting the interests of the coal and fossil fuel industries above the American public.”
The 8,000 members of the A.F.G.E. National Council #238 are made up of engineers, scientists and support staff nationwide. The A.F.G.E. union is the largest federal employee union of 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers.
John O’Grady, who is a biochemist, serves as the spokesperson for the Save the U.S. EPA campaign and spent over 30 years at the E.P.A. before becoming involved in the campaign out of concern for the current administration’s attempt to scale back the power of the E.P.A.
“I realized that we needed to get out there and speak to the public about what’s going on at the EPA and also do more than that, hopefully encourage people who are watching TV or reading the media to pick up the phone or write an email, to stop by and visit their Congressional representative or U.S. senators to let them know their feelings about the environment,” O’Grady told us in an interview.
What issues are Save the U.S. EPA focusing on?
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, proposed a budget that significantly cuts E.P.A. funding, attempted to dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan, shrunk the size of two national parks, lifted the ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and much more. When just one of these changes is considered a major setback for environmentalists, where does Save the U.S. EPA focus?
Staffing was the first major concern that O’Grady mentioned. Without staffing, the E.P.A. can’t logistically do its job. While the E.P.A.’s priorities have shifted under the new administration, simply not having enough staff limits capacity.
“We’ve seen enforcement drop terrifically at the E.P.A., so that’s kind of like when you’re not enforcing the law, it’s like not having a police car on the highways to keep people going 100 mph …so there’s no cop on it. So what prevents a company that’s struggling with say the profit line to do something not quite right?”
As for the actual staffing size, O’Grady went on, “We were at 18,110 staff positions… that was in 1999. Today we’re at 14,000, and the agency will not even release the number, I know it’s under 14,000,” he said.
The second major concern O’Grady mentioned was the budget. Today’s budget for the E.P.A. is $8 billion. “Compare $8 billion dollars to that, what the agency was originally funded, the funding levels in the 1970’s. If you bring those forward to 2018 dollars actually some of the budgets in the 1970’s were in the range of $14 billion in 2018 dollars,” O’Grady said.
The next concern for O’Grady was the since-resigned head of the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt himself. “Then you have the administrator of the E.P.A. that does not believe that climate change is real or he hems and haws and changes his mind. ‘Well… it might be happening, but we really don’t know the contributions from humans.’ Give me a break,” O’Grady exclaimed. “It’s all been pretty figured out by scientists across the world, and we’re supposed to be the premier environmental agency in the world, and now it’s kind of a laughing stock. So you have the attack on science.”
While Pruitt is no longer the head of the E.P.A., O’Grady listed a number of people at the E.P.A. in positions of leadership who seem prone to continue in Pruitt’s legacy, including Pruitt’s newly appointed replacement and former coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler. Like Pruitt, Wheeler is known to associate with and has worked for various climate change deniers including James Inhofe.
Lastly, in maintaining Save the U.S. EPA’s theme of focusing on the actual capacity of the E.P.A., O’Grady said the rumored reorganization of the E.P.A. was of concern. “And then we’re hearing rumors that they’re considering different reorganizations. So we know for a fact that they are reorganizing, but they may reorganize and compress some laboratories, some regional offices, that sort of thing and then that impacts the ability of the agency to have a presence in all the areas of the country.”
Has the US simply forgotten how bad the air and water once was?
“I think what’s going on is that corporations and a number of people that support Senators and Congressional representatives in their business profits have gotten it into their head that we have too much regulation,” O’Grady said.
“They forget what the air was like and what the water was like… back in the 60’s and 70’s. We can go back in that direction if we’re not careful.”
In our hyperpartisan era, the E.P.A. and environmental issues have somehow become yet another partisan issue. “Since when is the environment a partisan issue?” O’Grady asked.
“When the E.P.A. began it was actually set up by a Republican president, and it was definitely in response to the pressure of the American citizens.
“A bunch of people had experienced… like the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire at least 13 times before they felt that this was abnormal.
“We’re gonna have to get to that same level before we can stop this.”
Is there time to save the EPA and the environment?
When one administration can almost significantly dismantle one of the world’s most powerful environmental agencies, can the next administration do the reverse?
“It’s gonna take one term to turn everything back around before we begin to make gains again,” O’Grady responded.
“The real problem is… we don’t have any time to wait,” O’Grady continued. “This is really serious; people are not taking it seriously… There are nations, island nations in the Pacific losing their countries because of the rise in the ocean levels. We are losing coral reefs because of the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed in oceans, the parts per million level of CO2 is well beyond 400… We are cutting down forests in this whole global economy at an alarming rate and losing forests that would normally use this CO2. It’s a problem that is accelerating, and people just don’t get it.
“They won’t wake up until they’re seeing New York City and others along the east coast or west coast covered in water,” O’Grady lamented.
There is Hope For Environmentalists
Regardless of the current administration’s environmental stance, the polls show the simple fact is that a majority of Americans want a strong E.P.A. A 2017 Reuter’s poll found that more than 60 percent of Americans want the powers of the E.P.A. strengthened or preserved. Only 19 percent said they would like to see the agency weakened; the rest said they did not know.
In March of 2018, the American Lung Association released a poll that said that when presented with a “balanced debate” which included “strong arguments” that “reflect the language” used by opponents of maintaining car emission standards, “voters overwhelmingly support” current E.P.A. fuel efficiency standards.
A Gallup poll released shortly after that, also in March of 2018, found similar sentiments. According to the poll, 62 percent of Americans, the highest since 2006, believe “the government is not doing enough to protect the environment.”
In 1984 Gallup began asking Americans if they would favor the environment or the economy in a trade-off. The choice given was between giving priority to the environment “even at the risk of curbing economic growth” or giving priority to economic growth “even if the environment suffers to some extent.”
Between 1984 and 2000 Americans prioritized the environment. With the economic crash of 2001, the gap narrowed and in all but one year between 2009 and 2013 Americans prioritized the economy. Since 2014 the priority for the environment has outnumbered priority for the economy, and the gap between the two has grown.
In 2018, 57 percent of Americans said they would prioritize the environment, and just 35 percent prioritized economic growth, but that gap is still not as large as previous decades. Polarization still plays an impact as 59 percent of Republicans prioritize the economy and 76 percent of Democrats prioritize the environment.
O’Grady emphasized that while American public opinion may harbor concern for the environment and awareness is nice, action is the only way to achieve change and save the environment.
“Well awareness, is always good, but you have to take it a step further, and you have to recognize it as a problem, study it if they’re not convinced yet. But then the only way to change it is to contact senators and their congressional representatives and not just once, over and over again.
“And the other thing is start working on this locally as well, to get it a state issue. So attack it from both fronts, it’s the only way.
“For the life of me, I can’t figure out why corporate management thinks this is ok. I guess profit is so important to them that human life doesn’t matter.
“It’s a surviving issue. It’s an issue for the child with asthma or the folks that have pulmonary disease.”
Listen to the full interview:
If you want to learn more about Save the U.S. EPA visit them here.