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EPA says 3 scientists won’t discuss climate change in R.I.

The EPA has decided its scientists won’t speak at the State of the Narragansett Bay and Watershed program in Providence. Above, a humpback whale in the bay.
The EPA has decided its scientists won’t speak at the State of the Narragansett Bay and Watershed program in Providence. Above, a humpback whale in the bay.Ed Hughes/Associated Press/File

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has canceled the speaking appearance of three agency scientists who were scheduled to discuss climate change at a conference Monday in Rhode Island, according to the agency and several people involved.

John Konkus, a spokesman and former Trump campaign operative in Florida, confirmed that EPA scientists would not speak at the State of the Narragansett Bay and Watershed program in Providence. He provided no further explanation.

Scientists involved in the program said that much of the discussion at the event centers on climate change.

Many said they were surprised by the cancellation, particularly since the EPA helps to fund the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, which is hosting the conference. The scientists who have been barred from speaking contributed substantial material to a 400-page report to be issued Monday.


The move highlights widespread concern that the EPA will silence government scientists from speaking publicly or conducting work on climate change. Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, has said he does not believe human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are primarily responsible for the warming of the planet.

“It’s definitely a blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA,” said John King, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island who chairs the science advisory committee of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program.

“They don’t believe in climate change, so I think what they’re trying to do is stifle discussions of the impacts of climate change,” King said.

Monday’s conference is designed to draw attention to the health of Narragansett Bay, the largest estuary in New England and a key to the region’s tourism and fishing industries. Rhode Island’s entire congressional delegation, all Democrats, will attend a morning news conference. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, an outspoken critic of Pruitt, will be among the speakers.


Scientists there will unveil the report on the state of the bay, which EPA scientists helped research and write. Among the findings will be that climate change is affecting air and water temperatures, precipitation, sea levels, and fish in and around the estuary.

Autumn Oczkowski, a research ecologist at the EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory Atlantic Ecology Division in Rhode Island, was scheduled to give the keynote address. Colleagues said she intended to address climate change and other factors affecting the health of the estuary.

Rose Martin, a postdoctoral fellow at the same EPA laboratory and Emily Shumchenia, an EPA consultant, were scheduled to speak on “The Present and Future Biological Implications of Climate Change.”

“The report is about trends. It’s kind of hard not to talk about climate change when you’re talking about the future of the Narragansett Bay,” King said.

The agenda and speaker lineup was e-mailed to attendees Oct. 4. Tom Borden, program director of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, said he received a call Friday from Wayne Munns, director of the Atlantic ecology division of the EPA’s Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, telling him the three scientists would not be allowed to speak.

“I was not really provided with a clear explanation,” Borden said. “He advised me that it was the decision of the EPA Office of Public Affairs.”

Several Rhode Island scientists who work closely with the regional lab said political officials from EPA headquarters in Washington spent two days last week in the Rhode Island office reviewing the lab’s work.


Munns confirmed that EPA officials would not be participating in the meeting but did not explain why. Konkus, the agency spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether the conference’s focus on climate change was a factor.

He said in an e-mail that EPA scientists may attend the program, but not the morning news conference. He later clarified, saying, “EPA staff will not be formally presenting at either.”

Since August, all EPA awards and grant solicitations have gone through Konkus’ office for review.

A longtime Republican operative, Konkus served on President Trump’s campaign before he was appointed deputy associate administrator in EPA’s Office of Public Affairs. At the time, agency officials said they were ensuring agency funding is in line with Pruitt’s priorities.

The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program is funded through the EPA’s approximately $26 million National Estuary Program. It funds 28 state-based estuary programs and delivers about $600,000 annually to the Narragansett Bay program. Pruitt’s proposed budget for 2018 would eliminate the national program.

Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA also has removed most mentions of the words “climate change” from its website.

He has declined to link carbon dioxide emissions to global warming, and in an interview with Time magazine last week said he intended to assemble a team of independent experts to challenge established climate science because, Pruitt asserted, it has not yet been subject to “a robust, meaningful debate.”

On an EPA website, scores of links to materials to help local officials prepare for a world of rising temperatures and more severe storms have been removed.


Among the now-missing pages are those detailing the risks of climate change and the different approaches states are taking to curb emissions. Also edited out were examples of statewide plans to adapt to weather extremes.