Interviewing and Policy Project

The Interviewing and Policy Working Group analyzes changes to federal environmental, energy and climate policy and institutions. We are particularly focused on agency expertise, the use of science by agencies, the morale and culture within agencies, budgets, regulation, and the enforcement of regulations. Interviews with current and former staff, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, agency data and documents, and other sources form the basis of our research.

We draw on our members’ expertise in history, social science, legal and political analysis, information governance and other fields. We take on both rapid responses to changes in governance and pressing political events as well as longer-term research projects. We produce in-depth reports, white papers, public comments, fact sheets, letters to Congress, and FOIA requests, among other things. We have coordinated with, or advised, other non-governmental groups and government agencies.

Interviewing

One of the first things EDGI did was to launch a confidential interviewing/oral history project with long-time federal environmental employees, mainly at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but also the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While we began primarily with retired employees, including some who had been there at these agencies’ 1970 beginnings, we have increasingly spoken with current or very recently retired employees. Offering a more human and nuanced perspective on the impacts of the current administration on environmental agencies, our interviewing project seeks to preserve institutional memory, document the inner workings of environmental agencies under the current administration, and situate these historically.

Starting in December 2016, trained interview teams in Washington DC, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, New Jersey, Colorado, and Vermont began confidentially interviewing long-term EPA and OSHA employees. By June of 2017, interviewers had conducted 62 interviews, and as of December 2018, we have completed close to 100. 

Stony Brook University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved the consent process for the first interviews, and Northeastern University how provides the master IRB coverage, with other universities of the involved faculty acceding to that coverage. All interviews are confidential, with the interviewee offered a wide range of choices for exactly how strict the terms of confidentiality will be. Unless the interviewee specifies otherwise, the transcript is de-identified. Our research team has developed rigorous procedures for securely storing the audio files and interview transcripts. EDGI researchers also share files and communicate with an end-to-end encryption program to maintain confidentiality.

We use on-line training sessions to train and coordinate our interviewers. An interdisciplinary team of scholars codes and analyzes the interviews.

An Open Invitation to any and all Federal Environmental Employees

We would welcome your help! Anyone who has spent substantial time at a federal agency that deals with any environmental data and/or research (e.g. NOAA, NASA, Interior, DOE), please contact us for an interview. You can reach out to us using this Google Form, by phone at (917) 887-4244. Or, if you have a fully encrypted email account, you can copy and paste the text of the survey into the body of an email, fill it out, and send it to: EnviroDGI@protonmail.com. Learn more about sending secure email to us.

Making Use of Freedom of Information Act Requests

The Interviewing and Policy Working Group has also developed several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) campaigns to (1) determine the reasons for observed changes to content and information access on public-facing government websites, (2) gather information about changes to environmental agencies and their work, and (3) collect information regarding agencies’ data collection, access, and maintenance practices. We coordinate our FOIA campaigns with other environmental FOIA and government transparency efforts.

Specifically, our team has developed a partnership with MuckRock, a non-profit that has established a platform for filing, responding to, and tracking FOIA requests, and other major environmental groups to launch the Environmental FOIA Working Group. Together, we are working to develop software tools to enable easily sharing FOIA findings and resources.

Reports and White Papers

Public Protections Under Threat at the EPA: Examining Safeguards and Programs That Would Have Been Blocked by H.R. 1430 (March 27, 2017)

Protecting safe drinking water and healthy air depends on the EPA’s ability to incorporate the best available evidence from all scientific fields of study into its risk assessments and regulation drafting processes. EDGI’s analysis and research here shows that the passage of H.R. 1430 would block the EPA from using the data it needs to fulfill its mission of protecting public health and the environment.

EPA Under Siege: Trump’s Transition in History and Memory (June 19, 2017)

This report, the first of its kind, documented the transition from the Barack Obama administration to the Trump administration, with a focus on the EPA. The report’s special contribution is to explore just how this transition compares to earlier ones, also to offer an important, in many ways unrivaled glimpse into the entire history of EPA. Interviewees’ helped us understand the dynamics inside the EPA and other environmental agencies as they were, and are, being re-shaped by the Trump Administration. In stark contrast to form administrator Scott Pruitt’s June 15, 2017 Congressional testimony, our report shows that his administration has already damaged the agency, and posed the greatest threat to the EPA in its entire 47-year history. “EPA Under Siege” was featured in publications from Mother Jones to Bill Moyers to Grist (Eco-watch found it “stunning). In August, 2017, findings and authors directly contributed to front-page coverage by The New York Times of Pruitt’s impacts inside the EPA.

A Sheep in the Closet: The Erosion of Enforcement at the EPA (November 19, 2018)

This report examines environmental enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nearly two years into the Trump administration.  Based on extensive interviewing with EPA employees and recent retirees as well as in-depth wide-ranging research into EPA data and documents as well as news coverage, we conclude that the EPA is no longer so capable of fulfilling its mission to ensure competent enforcement of federal environmental laws. In place of that “gorilla in the closet” role characterized by its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, it has become more of a sheep in the closet. The EPA’s retreat, which shows little sign of stopping, has all but ensured significant deterioration of our nation’s public health and environment in the years ahead. So far, the report has been covered in the Pacific Standard, InsideEPA, and E&E News.

EPA Enforcement is Declining Across All Regions of the Country in Programs Designed to Protect Air, Water, Land and Public Health (December 7, 2018)

This small report updates and expands some of our analyses of enforcement data that we presented in “A Sheep in the Closet.” In particular, we breakdown declining enforcement cases and penalties by region, and cases by statute. We also examine EPA’s claim that enforcement numbers improved in the second half of the fiscal year 2018. We did not find that to be the case, based on the data available. Finally, we discuss some detailed aspects of the reliability and accessibility of EPA’s enforcement data.

Public Comments

Risk Management Program Amendment Delays (May 19, 2017)

Fact Sheets

Steep Drop in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Enforcement in Fiscal Year 2018 (December 11, 2018)

Academic Publications

The Environmental Protection Agency in the Early Trump Administration: Prelude to Regulatory Capture (American Journal of Public Health, April 2018, 108(S2), S89-S94)

History of US Presidential Assaults on Modern Environmental Health Protection (American Journal of Public Health, April 2018, 108(S2), S95-S103)