By Valerie Volcovici and P.J. Huffstutter
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has moved since he took office last week to curb the flow of information from several government agencies involved in environmental issues, in actions that may have been designed to 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.
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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.
"EPA staff have been reviewing grants and contracts information with the incoming transition team," EPA spokeswoman Julia Valentine said in a statement. "The goal is to complete the grants and contracts review by the close of business on Friday, Jan. 27."
BADLANDS PARK TWEETS DELETED
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."
U.S. Department of Agriculture employees on Monday were also informed in a memo seen by Reuters that all communications with the media should be approved by the administration, and social media posts should be reviewed by managers "to remove references to policy priorities and initiatives of the previous Administration."
The department, meanwhile, disavowed another email sent on Monday to its scientific research unit ordering the suspension of releasing "any public-facing documents," including news releases and photos, saying it was sent without permission and should not include a ban on publication of peer-reviewed scientific papers.
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 - though some tweets have been deleted.
On Tuesday, Badlands National Park, located in South Dakota and 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. By Tuesday afternoon, the tweets were gone.
A National Park Service official said the tweets had been posted to the Badlands National Park account by a former employee who was not authorized to use it.
"The park was not told to remove the tweets but chose to do so when they realized that their account had been compromised," the official said.
National Park Service social media managers are being encouraged to use Twitter to post public safety and park information but not content related to national policy issues, the official said.
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, Richard Valdmanis and Emily Stephenson; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Leslie Adler)