President Donald Trump’s move this week to freeze federal grants and contracts at the Environmental Protection Agency could have broad repercussions at Triangle universities, nonprofits and federal agencies that conduct research on climate change, health care and other policies that have been Obama administration priorities for the past eight years.
The new Republican administration is temporarily suspending all contract and grant awards at the EPA and Health and Human Services as officials begin a comprehensive review of the research and regulatory activities of the federal agencies they have just inherited. The ramifications of the order remain unclear but signal an intent to evaluate the focus of federal research and regulatory programs that occupy legions of contractors and federal employees in the Triangle.
The agencies were also told that any studies or data from EPA scientists, including routine monitoring of air and water pollution, must undergo review before their research can be released to the public. On Monday, Trump issued an order directing federal agencies to halt executive branch hiring in all areas but military, national security and public safety.
Federal contracts are “very important” to the Triangle because of the major universities in the area and a select group of major companies in Research Triangle Park, said Michael Walden, an economist at N.C. State University.
“If all that money went away in one fell swoop, I would deem it devastating to the local economy,” Walden said. “We’re not just a large metro, we’re a large metro with research and development.”
Walden estimated that more than 10,000 people in the Triangle have jobs related to federal government contracts, but he noted that those jobs are not necessarily in jeopardy.
“One thing to keep in mind is that the president is not a dictator. You always have a congressional response,” Walden said. “Congressmen and [congress]women tend to respond to the needs of their constituents. So even if he [Trump] proposed major cutbacks in federal grants, it’s not a slam dunk.”
Most of the federal workers and contractors in the Triangle are concentrated in a handful of large organizations.
Research Triangle Park is home to the EPA’s second-largest office, housing more than 2,000 employees who focus on air quality planning and air pollution regulation. Trump has expressed skepticism about man-made global warming and has also criticized the EPA for what he deems heavy-handed regulation. Trump’s appointee to head the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has in numerous lawsuits challenged the EPA’s authority in various areas, including the regulation of power plant emissions.
The other large federal agency in the Triangle – the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – had not been notified of any changes. The NIEHS is one of the 27 institutes and centers within the National Institutes of Health, and employs about 1,000 in the Triangle. It conducts research on air pollution, pesticides and other public health risks. The institute is completing a multi-year $25 million study on potential cancer risks caused by cellphone usage; the study is expected to be released by the end of 2017 and has been the target of criticism by the wireless communications industry. No contracts or grants have been suspended at the agency, according to a spokeswoman.
In addition to curtailing the EPA, among Trump’s top priorities is abolishing the Affordable Care Act, which, in addition to paying subsidies to offset health insurance costs, funds federal research in health care.
The nonprofit RTI International, with 2,100 workers in RTP, is a giant federal contractor that was awarded $660 million in federal contracts in fiscal year 2016 alone, holds about $30 million in nine EPA research contracts, and is heavily dependent on federal contract dollars.
On Tuesday, RTI president and CEO Wayne Holden said RTI leadership is unsure how Trump’s order could affect the organization. RTI, which employs more than 5,000 people worldwide, has performed contract work for the EPA since 1973 and has 350 staffers assigned to environmental contracts and 120 to Affordable Care Act contracts.
“We are monitoring the announcement closely to determine what impacts the order might have for our North Carolina staff members and the environment,” Holden wrote in an email.
The EPA awards more than $4 billion in grants and other assistance agreements annually, according to its website. The grants flow to nonprofit organizations and state governments to help “visionary organizations achieve their environmental goals,” the website states. In North Carolina, the EPA funds programs in the Department of Environmental Quality, but details were not available Wednesday.
Ted Conner, vice president of economic development at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, said federal contract funding is typically the domain of the U.S. Congress and it is not unusual for an incoming administration to put a temporary hold on some programs as it assesses priorities. He said post-election political turnover often causes anxiety for rank-and-file workers, but stability is eventually restored.
“A lot of these things always cause some consternation in the economic development world,” Conner said. “These are operations that create jobs and opportunities down the road.”