The Environmental Protection Agency is apparently undergoing a massive exodus. Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January, a staggering 700 employees have departed from their jobs at the agency, according to a new joint report from ProPublica and The New York Times. That number reportedly includes more than 200 scientists who've left the EPA, many of whom accepted buyouts from the administration aimed at slashing its staff to an extent not seen in 30 years
According to the report, the EPA is aiming to cut down its size to Reagan-era levels, which is why the majority of the employees who've left over the last year are not going to be replaced with new ones. In addition to the more than 200 scientists, the agency has reportedly lost nearly 100 "environmental protection specialists," as well as nine department directors. The staffing cuts, according to EPA employees cited in the report, have left the agency's ranks with far less experience at protecting clean air and water.
In other words, the cuts are straining the agency's ability to fulfill what has for years been one of its foremost responsibilities. It's not a surprise that the Trump administration has moved to gut the EPA, to be clear. For starters, there are the politics at play; the GOP is historically much more hostile towards environmental regulations than the Democratic Party, as well as broadly opposed to regulations on corporate activities.
It's also not a surprise thanks to the man running the whole thing. Selected late last year, and confirmed back in February, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is perhaps the most miscast leader the agency has ever had. In fact, while serving as the attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt filed multiple lawsuits against the agency he now leads, contesting its authority to impose environmental regulatory standards on his state.
In short, he was an extremely controversial choice to lead the agency, leading environmentalists to fear he'd be more inclined to dismantle the EPA and strip its regulations than to run it effectively. Thus far, those concerns appear to have been well-founded, as Pruitt's EPA has been slashing regulations even in the face of mounting evidence of the real-world impacts of climate change. Pruitt himself, for the record, has a history as a climate change denier, and has questioned the EPA's official position on the environmental hazards posed by CO2 emissions.
To give a sense of perspective, the EPA's staffing levels weren't even particularly robust at the end of the Obama administration. As the Times/ProPublica report notes, the agency had roughly 15,000 employees when Obama departed from office at the start of this year, and under Trump and Pruitt, its shrunk even further.
The EPA's reductions over the course of the past several years was in part thanks to pressure applied by Republicans, although the agency nonetheless maintained a slew of environmental standards that were viewed as hugely important by activists and advocates. And, as shown when attorneys general like Pruitt sued over them, it was willing to defend them in court.
That era, however, appears to be over. In October, the EPA announced the repeal of a landmark rule limiting carbon emissions from power plants. Along with the Paris climate accords, which Trump has signaled he's pulling the U.S. out of to great international dismay, the carbon emissions rule was one of the most significant environmental actions of his presidency.
It remains to be seen just how deep the cuts at the EPA will go, and what will be left of the agency by the time the Trump administration comes to an end. As it stands now, however, environmentalist groups and advocates have plenty of reasons to feel under fire, and there's no reason to think that's going to change anytime soon.