WASHINGTON - The Trump administration has instituted what it described as a temporary media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency and barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants, part of a broader communications clampdown within the executive branch.
Emails sent to EPA staff since President Donald Trump's inauguration Friday and reviewed by The Associated Press detailed specific prohibitions banning press releases, blog updates or posts to the agency's social media accounts.
The Trump administration has also ordered what it called a temporary suspension of all new business activities at the department, including issuing task orders or work assignments to EPA contractors. The orders were expected to have a significant and immediate impact on EPA activities nationwide.
Similar orders barring external communications have been issued in recent days by the Trump administration at other federal agencies, including the Agriculture and Interior departments.
Staffers in EPA's public affairs office are instructed to forward all inquiries from reporters to the Office of Administration and Resources Management.
Screening of media requests
"Incoming media requests will be carefully screened," one directive said. "Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press."
A review of EPA websites and social media accounts, which typically include numerous new posts each day, showed no new activity since Friday.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that he had no information on the blackout. He said aides were looking into the circumstances.
Doug Ericksen, the communications director for Trump's transition team at EPA, said he expected the communications ban to be lifted by the end of this week.
"We're just trying to get a handle on everything and make sure what goes out reflects the priorities of the new administration," Ericksen said.
Beyond what was stated in the internal email, Ericksen clarified that the freeze on EPA contracts and grants wouldn't apply to pollution cleanup efforts or infrastructure construction.
Officials at state and local agencies that rely on EPA for funding said they had received no information from EPA about the freeze.
"We are actively seeking additional information so we can understand the impact of this action on our ability to administer critical programs," said Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
The executive director for the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Jeff Ruch, said the orders go beyond what has occurred in prior presidential transitions.
'Dark cloud of Mordor'
"We're watching the dark cloud of Mordor extend over federal service," Ruch said Tuesday, referring to the evil kingdom in the epic fantasy "The Lord of the Rings."
Ruch noted that key posts at EPA had not yet been filled with Republican appointees, including Trump's nominee for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. That means the new senior personnel are not yet in place to make key decisions.
Environmentalists said the orders were having a chilling effect on EPA staff, many of whom were suffering from low morale. Trump and Pruitt have both been frequent critics of the agency and have questioned the validity of climate science showing that the Earth is warming and man-made carbon emissions are to blame.
Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club, said Trump's move to freeze all EPA communications and contracts should be "a major red flag for all Americans."
"EPA was created to ensure that all Americans can enjoy clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and have their health protected from environmental and climate threats," Perera said.
Some staff at the Agriculture Department also received orders not to release any documents to the public.
"This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds and social media content," read an email to staff at the agency's Agricultural Research Service, which was obtained by the AP.
ARS spokesman Christopher Bentley said the ban would not include scientific publications released through peer-reviewed professional journals.
"As the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America," Bentley said, according to a statement.
It was not immediately clear whether similar instructions were given to others within the department.
Park Service retweets
The AP reported over the weekend that staff at the Interior Department were temporarily ordered to stop making posts to its Twitter account. The prohibition came after the official account of the National Park Service, a bureau of the department, retweeted a pair of posts to its 315,000 followers that seemed to be a swipe at Trump on his initial day in office. The first was a photo that compared the crowd gathered on the National Mall for Trump with the much larger gathering that stood in the same spot eight years earlier for President Barack Obama's swearing-in.
Trump later falsely claimed that more than 1 million people attended his inauguration, which Spicer insisted was the most watched in history.