EPA Gags Scientists at Narragansett Bay Climate Talk

Activists denounced the move by holding a protest outside Save The Bay center, 100 Save The Bay Drive in Providence. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Activists denounced the move by holding a protest outside Save The Bay center, 100 Save The Bay Drive in Providence. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The White House and its new leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency have a made point of dismantling environmental protections in the name of states’ rights, but the federal agency recently stepped in to disrupt a major Rhode Island initiative.

Three Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists, including the keynote speaker, were barred from speaking at a public event scheduled for the morning of Oct. 23, ahead of the release of major environmental report on the health of the Narragansett Bay estuary. The report was compiled by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program (NBEP), with input from EPA scientists, many of whom work at the agency’s Atlantic Ecology Division in Narragansett.

Three days before the talk, on Oct. 20, the director of the EPA research lab, Wayne Munns, told NBEP director Tom Borden of the decision to limit the participation of the scientist at the event.

“I wasn’t given any explanation as to why and I won't even speculate,” Borden told ecoRI News.

Borden was informed by Munns that Autumn Oczkowski, a research ecologist at the EPA’s Narragansett lab and the event's keynote speaker, couldn't attend the presentation portion of the Oct. 23 talk at Save The Bay headquarters. Fellow EPA scientists Rose Martin and Emily Shumchnia were also to be excluded from the main event. According to The New York Times, Martin and Shumchnia are allowed to participate in a panel discussions later in the day. Oczkowski wasn't scheduled to speak as a panelist.

Borden said he was puzzled by the EPA’s gag order. He noted that he has an excellent relationship with Munns and the local EPA facility. The work the NBEP and the EPA conduct is simply research, far from the climate-denial activity in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a scientific evaluation it not a set of policy directives,” Borden said, referring to the annual Narragansett Bay watershed report.

The research and conclusion of the reports, he said, are critical to the future of the bay, which has benefited from major reductions in pollution but is being altered by an increase in temperature and contaminants. Harmful inflows are caused by intense precipitation, which, along with warmer waters, are the effects of climate change.

Researchers in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut are beginning to see a response to the dynamic playing out in the bay and its tributaries. “But we just don't know yet the implications,” Borden said.

One question to be asked is whether the intense criticism President Trump, EPA director Scott Pruitt and the fossil-fuel industry received Oct. 20 played a role in the decision to gag the EPA scientists. The Rhode Island Energy, Environmental & Oceans Leaders Day organized by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., at the Rhode Island Convention Center derided the executive branch for ignoring science, denying climate change, and subverting efforts to address it, as told by Whitehouse, former Secretary of State John Kerry and Gov. Gina Raimondo.

“The president is the on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history,” Raimondo said.

“Narragansett Bay is one of Rhode Island's most important economic assets and the EPA won't let its scientists talk with local leaders to plan for its future," Whitehouse wrote in an e-mail ahead of the Oct. 23 event. "Whatever you think about climate change, this kind of collaboration should be a no-brainer. Muzzling our leading scientists benefits no one."