Gina McCarthy knows what it feels like to be a lightning rod.
The recently departed administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency has been denounced as an extremist and berated by some Republicans who rejected the findings of her agency’s scientists. Her nomination by President Obama was held up for a record 136 days, longer than any of her 12 predecessors.
Now, as she settles back home in Boston after four years overseeing the nation’s efforts to address climate change and other environmental issues, McCarthy has become increasingly concerned about the direction of her agency — and her personal legacy.
“The signs I’m seeing now are extremely disappointing,” McCarthy said Monday in her first interview since leaving Washington, D.C.
Chief among her concerns are statements from President Trump’s EPA transition team suggesting that the agency’s staff may be cut by two-thirds, that political appointees will have to sign off on research, and that industry will have undue influence over scientific inquiries.
She also worries about the administration’s recent edict that temporarily barred staff from speaking to reporters, using social media, or awarding new contracts, its delay in implementing at least 30 environmental rules completed in the final months of the Obama administration, and potential efforts to reduce access to the agency’s research.
“A lot of this is unprecedented,” she said.
After the election, McCarthy said she never heard from members of the EPA transition team, which was led by Myron Ebell. Ebell has long denied the validity of climate science and runs the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-backed group that has sought to curtail the EPA.
She also hasn’t heard from Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, who was nominated to succeed her. She had met Pruitt once in court, on one of the occasions he sued the EPA, and called him about a month ago offering to help with his transition. She didn’t hear back, she said.
Pruitt, whose nomination will be voted on by a Senate committee Wednesday, has also had close ties to the fossil fuel industry. In a statement after he was nominated, Pruitt said “the American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations, and I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.”
Doug Ericksen, a spokesman for the EPA’s transition team, said McCarthy’s concerns are unfounded.
He attributed some of her concerns to statements by Ebell, who’s no longer involved with the transition team, he said. Ebell could not be reached for comment.
Ericksen said the administration hasn’t made any decisions about cuts at the agency, although he acknowledged that the administration has frozen federal hiring aside from military and emergency personnel. He also said that research at the agency would not be subjected to political review.
“I can’t respond to all the false claims made,” he said. “The agency is going to be focusing on science.”
But McCarthy said she is concerned about the Trump administration’s approach to climate change, which Trump has called a hoax.
“Climate science is more robust than the science that said cigarettes cause lung cancer,” she said. “You’d laugh at me if I said cigarettes didn’t cause lung cancer. It’s incredibly dangerous that they don’t believe it.”
Ericksen called that analogy “ridiculous.” When asked why, he said, “It just is.”
“I think it’s ironic that people are accusing this agency of trying to muzzle science; these are the same ones who have muzzled other dissenting views,” he added, referring to those who do not believe that climate emissions are causing the planet to warm.
McCarthy, who said she is readjusting to life outside Washington, D.C., said she worries that Trump administration policies will mark a major break with the past.
“The implication that political people would have to review the science before it was articulated is disturbing,” she said. “If the science changes because of politics, that’s not science.”
No members of the transition team were scientists, she said.
“They were calling the EPA’s science — which is considered the gold standard around the world — junk. They didn’t come in to understand it,” she said. “If you add up all those things, it doesn’t sound normal to me. It’s disturbing.”
As for her legacy, McCarthy said she is most concerned about the survival of the Obama administration’s signature environmental policies, such as the commitment to cut carbon emissions, which the United States and nearly 200 other countries agreed to in Paris in 2015. She’s also concerned about the prospects of the Clean Power Plan, which limited how much carbon power plants can emit.
At the same time, she noted that stricter fuel standards and the rise of renewable energy have already curbed emissions substantially. Rules adopted during her tenure had reduced mercury pollution and smog, reduced large amounts of toxins discharged into waterways, and improved the quality of drinking water, she said.
Other environmental advocates echoed McCarthy’s concerns about the agency’s direction.
“I am absolutely concerned about not only maintaining Gina’s legacy, but building on it,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon, a conservation group. “Now it appears we will take steps backward in denying [climate change] and the science that supports it.”
Ken Kimmell, president of the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said he was “very concerned” about the EPA’s priorities.
“There’s no question that there are plans to make significant cuts to the EPA’s budget, and those cuts are not only likely to cut federal enforcement of environmental regulations but state enforcement as well,” he said.
As for the future, McCarthy, who will spend the next few months as a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, said she remains optimistic that states around the country, such as Massachusetts, will continue to cut emissions and set an example for others.
“While I will be disappointed to lose ground, in the long run our markets are changing, and states will lead the way,” she said.David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.