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, an EPA spokesman and a former Trump campaign operative in Florida, confirmed that agency scientists would not speak at the State of the Narragansett Bay and Watershed program in Providence, R.I. 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 EPA's last-minute cancellation, particularly since the agency 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 administrator, has said that 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."
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. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, an outspoken critic of Pruitt, will be among the speakers.
Scientists there will present 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 level and fish in and around the estuary.
Autumn Oczkowski, a research ecologist at the EPA, was scheduled to give the keynote address. Colleagues familiar with her speech said she intended to address climate change and other factors affecting the health of the estuary.
Rose Martin, a postdoctoral fellow, and Emily Shumchenia, an EPA consultant, were scheduled to speak on an afternoon panel titled "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.
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.
Wayne Munns, director of the Atlantic ecology division of the EPA's Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, 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 in canceling the appearances. 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 grant solicitations have gone through Konkus' office for review, according to a directive first obtained by E&E News. Konkus served on President Donald Trump's campaign before he was appointed deputy associate administrator in the EPA's Office of Public Affairs. At the time, agency officials said they were ensuring agency funding is in line with Pruitt's priorities.