Days before the Alaska Forum on the Environment in February 2017, the EPA said it was sending half of the people who had planned to attend. The nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President Trump's pick to head the EPA, was still pending confirmation. Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images

By Rachel Waldholz and Bill Chappell
10 February 2017

(NPR) – The Environmental Protection Agency's presence at an environmental conference in Alaska this week was cut in half, after the Trump administration's transition officials ordered the change. The agency had helped to plan the Alaska Forum on the Environment — but days before it was to start, word came that half of the EPA's 34 planned attendees would not be making the trip.

"We were informed that EPA was directed by the White House transition team to minimize their participation in the Alaska Forum on the Environment to the extent possible," forum director Kurt Eilo says.

The change has created awkward scenes at the conference, particularly at events meant to highlight the EPA's role in Alaska, a state known for both its pristine ecosystems and its oil production.

More than a thousand people attend the multiday event in downtown Anchorage each year, and the EPA is normally a major partner. This year, agency officials were scheduled to take part in about 30 sessions on everything from drinking water and sanitation in rural Alaska to climate change adaptation.

In an emailed statement, EPA transition official Doug Ericksen says the decision to cut back is an effort to limit excessive travel costs. He says a review last week found that EPA spent $44 million sending employees to 25 outside conferences in 2016. When officials learned that 34 employees were slated to attend the Alaska event, they slashed the number to 17.

"This is one small example of how EPA will be working cooperatively with our staff and our outside partners to be better stewards of the American people's money," Ericksen said.

Some EPA staff whose plans to attend the conference were revoked would have come from Seattle, Wash., or Washington, D.C. But Eilo said others are based just blocks away from the downtown Anchorage site.

Eilo himself was an EPA enforcement officer when he founded the Alaska conference two decades ago. He says this is the first time he can recall this happening. While he understands the impulse to review travel spending, he says the cutbacks also raise a red flag.

"There's a lot of uncertainty among folks here at the forum," Eilo said. "There's concern about the tribal programs, there's concern about how we're going to address things like climate change in the next upcoming administration."

As the Alaska Dispatch News reports, one panel discussion that was to feature six EPA staffers Tuesday instead included two EPA representatives. While the topic had originally been planned to center on the agency's grant system, the officials instead fielded questions about changes at the EPA.

The order to reduce staff numbers at the conference is the latest sign of a shift in priorities for the EPA under a new president. Days after President Trump's inauguration, Ericksen said the agency's scientists will likely need to have their work reviewed on a "case by case basis" before it can be made public. [more]

EPA Halves Staff Attending Environmental Conference In Alaska

By Christopher Flavelle and Jennifer A. Dlouhy
10 February 2017

(Bloomberg) – Just three days before this week's environment conference in Anchorage, the top Environmental Protection Agency official in Anchorage called the organizer with some news: The agency had been instructed by the White House to slash the number of EPA staffers who could attend.

"We've never had this happen before," said Kurt Eilo, who has organized the Alaska Forum on the Environment for 19 years. The annual gathering brings together 1,800 people from Native Alaska communities, government agencies and the public to discuss climate-related issues, including melting permafrost and risks to villages from rising sea levels.

There had been 34 EPA staffers registered for the event at the downtown Dena'ina Center; in the end, only half were allowed to go. The agency says the late change — including scrapping the travel of some senior staff from Washington, D.C. — was about saving money for American taxpayers.

The travel change is one more sign of how President Donald Trump is taking a different approach to energy and environment than his predecessor. Federal workers and environmentalists say they are unnerved by what's been done so far: from deleted webpages on climate change to cuts in staffing at the office in the Department of Energy responsible for science research.

"It's clearly wrong and counterproductive to restrict EPA staff from attending meetings pertinent to the agency's mission," Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, said in an email. "This raises important questions about government transparency and public access to important information." [more]

EPA officials pulled from Anchorage conference after Trump team weighs in



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