Washington, DC — Employees within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say the agency faces unprecedented political pressure, with Bush Administration initiatives such as the Energy Plan taking precedence over pollution control, according to a survey released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The survey, conducted among employees of EPA’s Rocky Mountain Region, also faults the honesty of agency public statements and reveals a deep fear of retaliation, particularly among managers and supervisors.
The Rocky Mountain Region (Region 8) of EPA covers six states: Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and the Dakotas. PEER developed survey questions with EPA employees and mailed out questionnaires to all staff in the region. Of the 675 surveys sent, nearly one-quarter (154 or 23 percent) were returned.
The strongest reaction by survey respondents was concern about political interference with environmental decision-making:
- More than three in four say that politics are shaping agency actions “more than they did five years” ago, with fewer than one in 16 expressing disagreement;
- More than half think that “promoting the President’s Energy Plan and other Administration initiatives has become more important” than environmental protection, with fewer than one in six disagreeing; and
- Strong majorities register a sense that the agency is moving in the wrong direction and is becoming less effective.
As one employee writes in the essay portion of the survey, “this administration has politicized EPA to an extreme extent.” An agency manager cites the need to put protection of the environment ahead of energy development “because literally the opposite is true at this time.”
“In the trenches at EPA, both junior and senior staff see science becoming secondary to servicing industry, especially the energy industry,” stated Chandra Rosenthal, Director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain chapter and who oversaw the survey. “Politics now plays a preeminent role in day-to-day work at EPA.”
The survey also reflects a significant fear of retaliation. When asked to respond to the statement “I am hesitant to perform controversial aspects of my job for fear of retaliation” nearly one third of all employees say they do. Significantly, an even higher proportion of managers and supervisors (42 percent) acknowledge fear of retaliation for doing their jobs. The truthfulness of agency statements both to the public and internally to staff also draws criticism:
- Little more than one in three believe that their senior management “is committed to providing the media and the public complete and accurate information on controversial topics.” More than two-thirds of management respondents disagree;
- More than half do not think management “candidly explains the basis for its decisions on controversial issues to the professional staff” with fewer than one quarter feeling the agency “is committed to transparency in conducting” its business; and
- Slightly more employees feel that EPA management do not “usually support recommendations for environmental protection made by Region 8 professional staff” while a strong plurality of employees perceive that the “interests of the regulated business community” are placed above “environmental protection and public health.”
The verdict on regional leadership is mixed:
- More employees have no opinion of the performance of Regional Administrator Robbie Roberts than do and, of those that do, more than not feel that he is not “doing a good job as EPA regional Administrator”;
- As one professional staff member comments, “Robbie Roberts is invisible to most of the staff.” Another laments that the regional office has “lost our autonomy – everything has to go through Headquarters before any action is taken.”
- Respondents feel strongly that regional leadership “is committed to upholding environmental laws and regulations” but only one third “have confidence in the Senior Managers at Region 8;” and
- More than twice as many employees say morale is bad as those who say it is good. Paradoxically, EPA Region 8 scored highest of any EPA office in a recent “Best Places to Work” survey sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service and The Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University.
One topic drawing more response than any from individual employees is the lack of consistent enforcement decisions. One manager maintains the best way to improve environmental stewardship was “being sued more often” by citizen groups. A staff person claims that due to “a lack of funding” that EPA ignores new toxic waste sites that previously would have been part of the Superfund Program: “Basically we can find sites, but then have no way to deal with them.”
“These surveys are a way for employees to directly yet safely communicate with their real employers, the American public,” added Rosenthal. PEER has conducted scores of similar surveys among federal and state agencies. This spring, PEER conducted a similar survey of EPA criminal enforcement staff. Those survey results triggered a programmatic review and top program managers have departed or been reassigned.
See full survey results
Read employee essays on how to improve environmental stewardship