Confused About Federal Gag Orders And Contract Freezes? You're Not Alone

Jan 25, 2017

President Donald Trump has issued a lot of orders in his first week, and he's already putting his mark on the office. It's mostly big-picture policy statements. But some orders are creating confusion for government employees and citizens, especially when it comes to science and the environment.

The edicts affect a wide range of government programs related to health, the environment and agricultural research. In some departments, there's a ban on press releases and new web and social media posts, and employees are being told not to talk to reporters.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency, scientists wonder whether they can publish scientific papers about their research.

Information is being deleted from federal websites. On Wednesday, Reuters reported the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been told to take down its climate change information site - with a load of data.  

Gag orders and other steps like these could make it harder for citizens to get information and reporters to do their jobs. 

The EPA also has announced a freeze on new grants and government contracts. That could affect programs, state grants, and environmental cleanups.

NOT UNPRECEDENTED

To be fair, this isn't all that unusual. Every new administration does this - to a degree. New presidents want to make sure federal departments get in line with their policy views. But Trump swept into office promising big changes. So people are concerned he'll go farther than his predecessors.   

Whether that happens remains to be seen. It's early, and most departments are still trying to figure out what the orders mean and how they should be carried out.

There are a few signs it may not be doomsday.

The USDA has actually backed off an email ordering staff to clamp down on information flow, including published research.

North Carolina gets a lot of money from the EPA for programs that protect the environment. A Department of Environmental Quality spokesman told me Wednesday it looks like the freeze on new grants and contracts won't have any "near term" effects in North Carolina. But it's still not clear what happens down the line.

WHAT ABOUT BASIC PROJECTS?

And then there's the basic work of all these federal departments - far away from debates on things like climate change. What happens to those?

I did a story recently about asbestos contamination around an old mill in Davidson. The EPA is supposed to start a cleanup this spring of asbestos at homes near the mill, through its Superfund program. No contracts have been signed yet, so I called the EPA to ask if the project would be put on hold.

On Tuesday, there was some confusion: A spokeswoman said she couldn't comment on the gag order and whether it would keep her from answering my questions. 

But on Wednesday, she replied: The Davidson cleanup project remains on track.

"The temporary pause on some EPA contracts and grants is not expected to apply to Superfund cleanup efforts that are underway," she said in an email.

The confusion over this and other individual projects probably shouldn't be surprising. I think career workers in all these departments are really just trying to figure out how to do their jobs under the new administration.

But if you're waiting for a hazardous waste cleanup, like those people in Davidson, it's one more thing to worry about. 

Ruby Houston lives across the street from the old asbestos pile in Davidson and worries if the drama in Washington will affect her cleanup.  

"Safety and health and people having a healthy environment, that's what we want," Houston said. "I'm nervous about what the United States is saying about the EPA right now. I hope and pray that before we resolve some of this, they aren't exhausted…  they're still in business, really."  

It's a valid concern.