President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency sparked widespread outrage last week when it unexpectedly dismissed nine members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), an 18-member committee that advises the agency’s main science division. The firings caused all the more alarm when an EPA spokesperson said the agency was considering replacing the fired scientists with representatives from polluting industries.
On Friday, two of the EPA’s science advisers resigned in protest of the BOSC dismissals, saying the agency’s decision represented “watering down of credible science, engineering, and methodological rigor.” One of the advisers posted the full letter on Twitter, calling it a “painful professional decision.”
Carlos Martin and Peter Meyer were members of the BOSC’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities Subcommittee, which Meyer said helps the EPA’s science division figure out the best, most cost-effective ways to clean up contaminated sites like Superfunds and brownfields. Though nine advisers were booted from BOSC last week, Meyer said he and his colleague resigned specifically because of the dismissals of Courtney Flint and Robert Richardson, two scientists who ran their subcommittee.
Meyer is a PhD economist and professor of Urban Policy and Economics at the University of Louisville. In a phone call with the New Republic, he explained why he decided to resign—and encouraged others on his subcommittee to follow suit. This interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Let’s start with the basic question. What spurred you to sign on to this strongly-worded resignation letter?
When we started out in this position, we had what we thought was going to be a four to five-year assignment. That’s what we had been told. But then, out of nowhere, our chairpeople didn’t get renewed. And Carlos and I just thought, we’re not going to start over with new chairs that we don’t know and we don’t trust. This is going to be a waste of our time. We don’t see the work we were doing continuing efficiently or effectively. That’s why we resigned. There’s probably better things to do with our time.
Why would the work you were doing not be effective with new leaders?
We had developed a very close working relationship with our chairpeople. We trusted our chairs—they had final editorial reviews on the reports that we wrote. We have no idea who the news chairs are going to be, and we saw no reason to assume that they would be equally committed to the work we were doing; because if they were, then why replace them in the first place?
So this was about not trusting the administration to replace them with qualified people.
Given the various statements from the administration, we were expecting to find ourselves with leadership that would be from something else, not necessarily independent parties. And we didn’t see ourselves as wanting to start over again, and we didn’t trust the new people that were coming in, because obviously the EPA is removing our leadership because they don’t trust them.
Devil’s advocate here: Doesn’t your resignation open up more positions for untrustworthy people?
That’s certainly possible. But we also saw no reason to assume we were going to be renewed. Our terms are all up. If our leaders had already been removed, we thought we might be removed as well. And we wanted to register a protest in a way that would be a little more obvious than simply the removal of all of us simultaneously and unceremoniously.
Are you generally a political person? Do you identify with any particular political party?
I am running at the moment for Borough Council in the Borough I live in, and I am running on the Democratic ticket. So that is one way of characterizing where I am and what I am politically. But that has never played a role in my time at EPA. I have absolutely no idea what the political affiliations are of any of my colleagues. That’s not something we’ve ever discussed. We were committed to doing a particular kind of a job.
How did your work at EPA help regular human beings? In other words, why should regular people care that you’re not in this position anymore?
Our job was to ensure greater efficiency and effectiveness in the kinds of work the EPA’s Office of Research and Development was doing. Our function was to make their work, for lack of better term, more cost-effective for the government.
The work ORD was doing included research that establishes safe limits for certain kind of toxins, in air, water or soil. And that research might influence regulations. And part of my background is in reclaiming brownfield, Superfunds, and contaminated sites. So I was helping EPA figure out how to better provide information for those supervising cleanups. What I’m doing is helping EPA to figure out the most cost-effective ways of cleaning up damage. I see us as helping our fellow Americans by making EPA’s work most cost-effective.
Did your decision to resign have more to do with Trump or Scott Pruitt? Was it motivated by one of them, both of them, or one more than the other?
Our reaction I think is neatly summarized in the last paragraph of the letter, which makes reference to the proposed 40 percent cut in ORD’s budget. I can’t tell you how much of that cut came from Trump, or from Pruitt, but that’s what we were reacting to in large measure. That, and the removal of our leadership.
What is your outlook for the future of science-based policy at EPA?
I’m worried about it. If we don’t have good science behind what we’re doing, we’re either regulating inadequately, or regulating excessively. All of that science we were doing was focused on regulating effectively, and by that I mean efficiently. You don’t want to clean up more than you have to, and you don’t want to clean up not enough. That was the dilemma this entire ORD was focused on. And I believe that certainly that 40 percent cut jeopardizes that mission.
Do you believe that more people will be publicly resigning in the near future?
I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. But I hope others will resign as we did.