Within hours of President Donald Trump’s swearing-in Friday, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency were barred from any external communications and instructed to freeze all contracts and grants.
The Associated Press has reviewed emails sent to EPA staff since Friday’s inauguration that detail the specific prohibitions on news releases, blog updates or posts to the agency’s social media accounts. Similar bans on external communications have been issued at other federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Transportation.
According to AP, staff members at the EPA’s public affairs office have been instructed to forward all inquiries from reporters to the Office of Administration and Resources Management.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer told AP Tuesday that he had no information on the blackout, but said that aides were looking into the circumstances.
Meanwhile, an email shared with the Washington Post instructs agency employees to “temporarily” suspend all grants and contract awards effective immediately. As the Post notes, this could impact everything, including state-led climate research and environmental-justice projects aimed at helping poor communities.
“New EPA administration has asked that all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately,” the email read. “Until we receive further clarification, which we hope to have soon, please construe this to include task orders and work assignments.”
The EPA awards more than $4 billion in funding for grants and other programs that benefit scientists, state and local officials, universities and Native American tribes, but that funding is on hold.
In an email Tuesday, an agency spokesperson said, “EPA staff have been reviewing grants and contracts information with the incoming transition team. Pursuant to that review, the agency is continuing to award the environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes; and we are working to quickly address issues related to other categories of grants.”
According to the Post, the agency said that the goal is to complete the grants and contracts review by the close of business Friday.
Myron Ebell, who ran the EPA transition for the incoming transition, told ProPublica on Monday that the freeze on grants and contracts was not unprecedented.
“They’re trying to freeze things to make sure nothing happens they don’t want to have happen, so any regulations going forward, contracts, grants, hires, they want to make sure to look at them first,” said Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market, industry-aligned group that has long fought the EPA’s growth and influence.
“This may be a little wider than some previous administrations, but it’s very similar to what others have done,” Ebell said.
An EPA employee told ProPublica that he had never seen anything like this freeze in nearly a decade with the agency. He said the freeze appeared to be nationwide, but it was not clear how long it would be in place.
As the Post notes, Trump has repeatedly criticized the EPA for “hampering businesses” with “onerous, expensive regulations,” and his nominee to run the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has repeatedly sued the agency over the years and challenged its legal authority, so it is no secret that the incoming administration would like to reduce the EPA’s powers.