Hard Times for Clean Water

The EPA: Scientific Integrity in the Balance

Portrait of Deborah Swackhamer before the capitol building

Deborah Swackhamer wanted to protect the environment. The Professor Emerita of Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs directed the Water Resources Center (WRC) for twelve years, an experience she describes as rewarding. “I had a wonderful staff, a top-notch graduate program with great students. My leadership position allowed me to further education and protection of the state's water resources,” while speaking to audiences at the University, state, and federal levels. Swackhamer also worked at the Clean Water Council and with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the Departments of Natural Resources, Health, and Agriculture. All this led to being invited by the state legislature to work on Minnesota’s Water Sustainability Framework.

“The Framework is a blueprint,” she explains, “for what the issues are in Minnesota around water, what needs to be done, and more importantly, how to address them. I served as a sort of orchestra conductor, with more than 150 talented professionals identifying the problems and solutions, and the synthesis team putting it together into a meaningful policy document.” 

After directing the WRC, Swackhamer served as chair of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) for four years, and here things turned dark. Former Attorney General of Oklahoma Scott Pruitt was appointed administrator of the EPA in early 2017, lasting just over one year in this role. In that time he gutted the BOSC, the Science Advisory Board, and the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee by an unprecedented procedure: he simply declined to reappoint members when their terms ended. The EPA replaced the members with partisan supporters, including those with little to no scientific background, to pass environmental deregulation under the facade of scientific advisory. “This is the first time these committees have been used in this way in the history of the EPA,” Swackhamer notes. Pruitt resigned 17 months after his appointment, but the damage to the EPA—and, consequently, the environment—was done.

As for Swackhamer, she now serves on the National Academy of Sciences Board of Environmental Science and Toxicology. Despite powerful climate-denying lobbyists and groups, she holds “the hope of an achievable goal—elect a person who respects science and health in 2020.” She also abides by standing up for scientific integrity noting, “I try to take one day at a time, take the long view, remind myself that our planet, and our society, and our democracy have been as challenged if not more so in the past, and ‘we muddled through somehow’.” 

Join Swackhamer for The EPA: Scientific Integrity in the Balance (May 21), the first seminar in LearningLife’s From the Field series.

Published on April 23, 2019