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Minnesota’s Deborah Swackhamer is honored for speaking out on meddling at EPA

MIT lists the scientist in its 2018 Disobedience Awards, along with founders of #MeToo movement.

Deborah Swackhamer
MIT's Media Lab honored Deborah Swackhamer in its 2018 Disobedience Awards for speaking out about official meddling with the scientist panels advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
MinnPost file photo by Andrew Wallmeyer

First of two articles.

Deborah Swackhamer has gotten considerable recognition over the decades for her work as an environmental chemist and toxicologist at the University of Minnesota, where she headed the Water Resources Center and oversaw preparation of the state’s landmark Water Sustainability Framework.

Three years retired from the U, she has continued to work as an adviser on environmental policy, and was startled a couple of weeks ago by an announcement from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, which honored her in its 2018 Disobedience Awards for speaking out about official meddling with the scientist panels advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If you haven’t heard of this award, well, neither had I and neither had Swackhamer, prior to the announcement. It’s only two years old; it doesn’t come with a big check; it’s exactly the sort of recognition that’s called for in these increasingly authoritarian times.

Swackhamer is in good troublemaking company. This year’s top honorees were three leaders of the #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM movements: Tarana Burke, BethAnn McLaughlin and Sherry Marts. Swackhamer was a finalist, along with Katie Endicott, a lead organizer of the West Virginia teachers’ strike; the sisters Sarah and Yusra Mardini, competitive swimmers turned activists for their fellow Syrian refugees; and Tara Parish, who organized a sanctuary project to head off deportation orders against a Massachusetts immigrant family.

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Last Friday Swackhamer and I spoke about the award, the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to hamstring the EPA, some frightening official interference directed at her personally, and larger threats in the current political climate to the  role of science in shaping public policy. Following are excerpts from our conversation, which began with my congratulations on the cool award and a question about where it would rank among the accolades of her distinguished career:

It is cool, and it was such a surprise. When I learned about it I was just totally humbled to be part of it because, really, I don’t feel like a hero. I didn’t do anything life-threatening. I didn’t stand in front of a bus. I just did what I thought was right, didn’t even question it.

It’s definitely near the top. I have a teaching award from the university, the Ada Comstock award, which is very precious to me because it’s kind of a feminist award. But this one was so unusual because it had not to do with my scientific accomplishments but with standing up for science policy. I have to say it’s very meaningful, and at the end of my career it’s a wonderful capstone.

You’ll no doubt recall the efforts of Scott Pruitt, former EPA head, to change the membership of the agency’s advisory boards, replacing independent scientists with Trumpist friendlies, often without much in the way of science credentials. You may also recall his aide pressing Swackhamer to misinform Congress about the status of an effort to repopulate the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), which she chaired. But not all of the reporting was perfect, so I asked Swackhamer to recap the episode.

So, there were references in the media to these being “firings,” but nobody was fired – they were notified that their appointments would not be renewed. A subtlety, but it means the agency was in its complete legal rights to do that; to fire somebody would be much more difficult.

I was demoted as chair [in November 2017], which again is totally within the purview of the agency. And I stayed on until my term ended in March of this year.

With this committee, they told us all that nobody was being renewed, and everyone could reapply. So I reapplied. When I looked on the website at the end of March my name was still listed, so I called a staff person and asked if I was still a member. He got all tongue-tied – I’d worked with this guy for two years – and he said, no, you’re not, this is embarrassing, we need to fix the web page and we need to get a letter out. And I did get a letter, oh, months later. Actually, two letters  one signed by Scott Pruitt and then one from [his successor] Andrew Wheeler.

As for her House Science Committee testimony in June of 2017, several months before the demotion, Swackhamer said she was invited by the minority Democrats to discuss the wisdom of transferring more regulatory responsibility to the states, as well as the need for good science to inform policymaking. She was to speak “as a well-known scientist from Minnesota,” not in her role as BOSC chair.

She consulted the EPA ethics office, which said there was no problem so long as she (1) made clear that she wasn’t speaking for EPA, and (2) avoided referencing any agency materials that weren’t already public. She sent her prepared remarks to the committee 48 hours before the hearing, as required, expecting they’d be kept under the customary embargo until her appearance.

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But then, “the night before the hearing, I got this whole string of emails” from Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff:

Three alarming things here: Why was Jackson emailing me at all, since I’d been cleared by the ethics office and wasn’t speaking as BOSC chair? Then he gave me internal talking points that were, of course, not public information, and he wanted me to use them in my testimony. Which would have been illegal.

And then he’d gotten my testimony, which he should not have done, and should not have been able to do. This is when I got scared realizing that he had made some phone call and instantly gotten hold of my embargoed testimony.

He then told me to change my testimony – my written testimony – on nonrenewal of BOSC members’ appointments, to say that Mr. Pruitt had not yet decided about renewal. And, no way, man! I had a memo, in writing, saying  they were not renewed. So I thanked him for his input and ignored it.

I was pretty nervous at this point. I started a diary that night, of this whole episode, so I’d have it in writing for myself. And I sent all the emails to another server, in order to have multiple electronic copies.

I still can’t imagine anybody in my shoes changing their testimony or using those documents. If I’d used the documents, it would have been a clear violation of the ethics policy – he could have turned around and fired me, and he’d be in the right! And even if I had wanted to change the written testimony, how can you do that? And it wasn’t correcting some small point: It was a black-and-white lie.

Because I’d seen in the clippings that the committee intended to investigate Jackson’s actions, I asked whether anything had come of the inquiry.

There was a formal request by the House of Representatives to the inspector general for EPA, documenting everything I’ve just told you, documenting the emails, outlining the laws that were broken. About a week later I had a conversation with a committee staff member, asking what I could expect, and he told me that the IG is required to follow up on every request of this kind, and a request from Congress is a big deal.

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However, he said, there were already more than 2,000 requests for investigation of Pruitt’s actions in the IG’s office at the EPA – so, he said, don’t hold your breath. They may get to you eventually, but it will be a long time. This was six months into the Trump administration.

So if I never hear from them, I won’t be surprised. And yes, Ryan Jackson is still on the job, but we don’t hear so much from him lately. He may be keeping his head down.

As for the other advisory committees at EPA, Swackhamer said, there are 17 – “and I couldn’t begin to name them all; the agency can create committees to help on really specific issues” – but only three “big ones” besides BOSC:

  • The Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC), which counsels the administrator directly on updating standards for the major “criteria pollutants” governed by the Clean Air Act.
  • The over-arching Science Advisory Board (SAB), which counsels the administrator on a wide range of issues, including clean water protections.
  • The FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP), which makes recommendations on pesticide registrations under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.

The shakeup at BOSC turned out to be the “canary in the coal mine,” Swackhamer said, for sweeping  dismissals-by-nonrenewal at the SAB (on which she had served previously) and CASAC; she wasn’t as familiar with the pesticide panel, “but it doesn’t look as if they’ve been messed with as much.”

Both CASAC and the SAB were decimated – the renewals came up in June, July and August [of 2017] and they did not renew anybody. They filled the vacancies with industry people and state regulators, basically. Now, some states are great – if they used a person from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, I’d say, go for it. But other states aren’t; they have a different philosophy of regulation. And the boards were filled from those states.

With CASAC, none of the new members except the chair has any experience in air pollution of any kind, and the chair was just in the news because of a huge conflict of interest. [That would be Tony Cox, a statistician promoted for the job by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; some of his research on particulate pollution reportedly was underwritten, and even edited, by the American Petroleum Institute before journal submission.] They also completely dissolved the subcommittees of CASAC – the particulate committee, ozone committee, etc.

CASAC is required by Congress, but subcommittees are not; that was a formulation that EPA put in place to get the work done, but EPA can also take it away, and they did. The particulate and ozone standards are the next ones up for renewal, and [Pruitt’s successor, Andrew] Wheeler will be advised just by the seven members of the main committee, who don’t know anything. Unbelievable.

The SAB has 50 members, and has been reconstituted with new membership, and I think it probably took six months just to make the new appointments – there’s a lot a paperwork – and then it takes time to get everybody together for a meeting. So I think they’ve only had one or maybe two meetings, and not until sometime this fall.

As for BOSC, Swackhamer was a little more upbeat – even about her successor, Paul Gilman, who has a track record with EPA and other federal service, but most recently had been an executive at the Covanta trash-to-energy outfit, which is frequently in the news for big pollution and workplace safety fines.

EPA does only a small amount of research on its own, but it’s critical to filling in gaps between the work of other agencies, academic researchers and the private sector. It’s not terribly sexy research – like determining the efficacy of a wastewater treatment process – but it’s necessary. And it’s quicker to do it in ORD than put out a request for proposals, wait for the bids to come in… They do a lot of work on car emissions, too.

I think Paul was a good choice, though I wouldn’t say his last industry position is as encouraging as his previous service. He knows the agency really well, he knows ORD really well, and what its mission is. He’s a cautious person but an ethical person. So BOSC and ORD, at least, will be in good hands.

And his vice chair, Lucinda Johnson, is an excellent ecologist. I was surprised she was renamed.

Tomorrow: Threats to the traditional role of science in federal governance.