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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Trump administration seeks to muzzle U.S. agency employees: sources

Tue Jan 24, 2017 | 5:35 PM EST U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2017. Reuters/Joshua Roberts Trump administration seeks to muzzle U.S. agency... X By Valerie Volcovici and P.J. Huffstutter | WASHINGTON/CHICAGO U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has moved to curb the flow of information from several government agencies whose mandate impacts environmental issues since last week, in actions that appeared designed to tighten control and discourage dissenting views. Employees at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have seen directives from the newly minted leadership seeking to limit how they communicate to the public, according to multiple sources. The moves have reinforced concerns that Trump, a climate change doubter, could seek to sideline scientific research showing that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming, as well as the career staffers at the agencies that conduct much of this research. All of the agencies affected by the actions have some input on issues related to the environment and have been involved in various efforts related to climate change, including effects on natural resources and human health. On Tuesday, a source at the EPA said that staff had been told by members of the Trump administration not to speak to reporters or publish any press releases or blog posts on social media. EPA staff have also been asked not to publicize any talks, conferences, or webinars that had been planned for the next 60 days, the staffer said, asking not to be named. Asked if the EPA had been gagged, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Tuesday: "I don't know ... we're looking into it. ... I don't think it's a surprise we're going to review the policies, but I don't have any info at this time." The agency also was asked by the White House on Monday to temporarily halt all contracts and grants pending a review, according to multiple sources. The EPA awards billions of dollars worth of grants and contracts every year to support programs around environmental testing, cleanups and research. Environmental groups reacted with outrage. New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, said in reaction to the freeze that his office "will examine all legal options to ensure the EPA meets its obligations to keep our state’s air and water safe." ADVERTISING inRead invented by Teads The Department of Agriculture also has seen efforts to curb communication. On Monday, staff at the department's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) were asked in an email to suspend the release of "any public-facing documents." "This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content," the email said.  The ARS focuses on scientific research into the main issues facing agriculture, including long-term climate change. The Department of Agriculture disavowed the email on Tuesday, saying in a statement that it was released without "departmental direction and prior to departmental guidance being issued" and that peer-reviewed scientific research would still be published. "ARS will be providing updated direction to its staff," the statement said, without providing additional details. Officials at HHS also received a memo ordering them not to send “any correspondence” to other public officials. Instead, they must refer any requests for information to senior leaders, who are not to do anything until they have received instructions from the White House staff on its policies, according to a source who read the memo. Last week, staff at the Interior Department were told to stop posting on Twitter after an employee retweeted posts about the relatively low attendance at Trump's inauguration, and about how the issues of climate change and civil rights had disappeared from the White House website. The department has since resumed tweeting. On Tuesday, Badlands National Park, part of the Department of Interior, posted a series of Tweets about climate change: "Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. #climate," one of the tweets read. Trump has promised to promote oil drilling and mining by cutting regulation, including by targeting former President Barack Obama's initiative to combat climate change. Trump also has suggested pulling the United States out of a global pact on climate change signed by nearly 200 countries last year. Trump's nominees to run the EPA, Interior and the Department of Agriculture - Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana and former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, respectively - are awaiting Senate confirmation. Trump has drawn heavily from the energy industry lobby and pro-drilling think tanks to build a team charged with preparing the EPA for its new leadership, according to a list of the newly introduced 10-member team seen by Reuters on Monday. An EPA spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (Additional reporting by John Walcott; Additional reporting and writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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