Since the first Women’s March was held in January of 2017, serving in the Trump administration has been brutal for women scientists and engineers who are manning the resistance inside and outside the EPA. Here are the stories of three brave women who put their careers and lives on the line to speak out for the American People.
1. Dr. Ruth Etzel, a distinguished pediatrician, epidemiologist and children's environmental health advocate for 30 years, joined EPA in 2015 after serving as senior officer for Environmental Health Research in the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler removed Dr. Etzel as head of EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection because she repeatedly objected to EPA efforts to disregard science and risks to the weakest and most vulnerable Americans among us. Trump’s EPA eventually sidelined her renowned career and without explanation put her on administrative leave. A leaked email from Etzel shows she was fighting from inside EPA against regulatory rollbacks that undermine children health: “I appear to be the ‘fall guy’ for their plan to ‘disappear’ the office of children’s health,….It had been apparent for about 5 months that the top EPA leaders were conducting ‘guerrilla warfare’ against me as the leader of OCHP, but now it’s clearly official.”
Etzel’s EPA office had a small staff of 15 full-time employees and a $2 million budget, but its job was gravely important. The Obama administration had recognized that special care was needed to protect children because their bodies and brains are developing, and exposure to toxics at an early age leads to lasting, sometimes irreversible impacts. Etzel stood in the way of the Trump administration’s plans to roll back bipartisan environmental protections for kids, like those reducing lead. In Etzel’s absence, Trump’s EPA issued its Federal Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposure in December 2018. Despite its name, it retreats from goals set forth in a federal plan, issued under the Clinton administration.
Instead of eliminating lead paint hazards where young children live within 10 years, Trump’s lead plan provides no deadline. Nor does it set numerical goals for reductions in children’s blood lead levels. Additionally, EPA asked a court to delay for six years an update to 17-year-old regulations on lead in paint and dust, postponing new safe lead exposure benchmarks for children.
Etzel spent her whole EPA career working to protect the American people and children against health risks. When she objected to Trump’s rollbacks, they ostensibly fired her.
2. An Environmental chemist/toxicologist at the University of Minnesota, Deborah Swackhamer has an unwavering devotion to the principles of sound science. Her willingness to stand up for her fellow scientists and the standards of ethics that apply to federal service are intrepid examples of a scientist serving the American people.
When Trump took office, Swackhamer was the chair of EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC). BOSC had been targeted by Pruitt, who had decided not to renew several board members' terms, which was unprecedented. Swackhamer was critical of Pruitt's announcement that members of EPA's advisory committees could not be in receipt of EPA grants, leaving advisers with industry ties and no academic credentials in place while ousting academics and independent researchers.
She also clashed with Trump's political appointees over science policy and gave congressional testimony in June 2017 in which she questioned the administration’s politicizing of science. According to Swackhamer, EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson tried to influence her testimony. In a highly unusual form of retaliation, Pruitt decided not to renew her as chair of BOSC.
3. As director of Science and Technology in the Office of Water, Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland worked for 40 years in environmental protection and was tasked with addressing all manner of environmental threats while drafting complex water regulations.
However, with an openly hostile deregulation agenda, Pruitt touted new "environmental policies" that allowed industry, coal-fired power plants, to pollute at the expense of public health. Southerland resigned from EPA in early August 2017 and explained her decision in a farewell letter published by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a non-profit group for federal resource professionals.
“Today the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth,” she wrote. “The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities.”
Since her resignation, Southerland has continued raising her voice against Trump’s refusal to protect the American public from environmental hazards. Her expertise in justifying environmental regulations using scientific data is at the heart of many of the disputes between environmentalists and Trump’s EPA.
She’s been an enormously effective voice, and must be scoring points, because the White House has tried to discredit her several times, once by peddling false information about the amount of her pension, which the politicized EPA press office inflated by an order of magnitude.
Still, she maintains and shares hope for the future, as she stated in her farewell letter: "It may take a few years and even an environmental disaster, but I am confident that Congress and the courts will eventually restore all the environmental protections repealed by this administration because the majority of the American people recognize that this protection of public health and safety is right, and it is just.”
Each of these three women have joined the ranks of dissenting federal officials who privately or publicly chastised the Trump administration for disregarding environmental safeguards, largely by reducing federal oversight and overturning landmark Obama-era EPA regulations extending public health protections in unprecedented ways.
Each one of these women have paid a personal and professional price in the current political climate and yet had the guts to stand up to Trump and his administration. These women faced those consequences, not for themselves or their own gain, but to protect human health and the American people. Ruth Etzel, Deborah Swackhamer, Betsy Southerland — let’s not forgot how these women spoke up to protect us.
Nicole Cantello is vice president of AFGE 704, representing EPA Region 5 workers protecting Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
This piece has been updated.