The administration of President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily stop giving out grants and signing contracts, and Maryland officials were "working to clarify" what that might mean for state programs that are dependent on federal funds.
The "temporary suspension" of all new business activities at EPA covers any task orders or work assignments to EPA contractors. The orders are expected to have a significant and immediate impact on EPA activities nationwide.
White House officials also instituted what they called a temporary media blackout at both EPA and a branch of USDA, barring external communications with members of the media or postings to social media accounts.
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.
Doug Ericksen, communications director for Trump's transition team at EPA, said the freeze on grants and contracts won't apply to pollution cleanup efforts or infrastructure construction activities.
It was not immediately clear how the action could affect Maryland programs. One-fourth of the Maryland Department of the Environment's budget comes from federal funds, and EPA grants and contracts also fund nonprofit and foundation work to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and improve local air quality.
The department "has not received any official notification from the Trump administration but is working to clarify any changes," spokesman Jay Apperson said. "We remain committed to protecting and restoring the environment for the health and well-being of all Marylanders."
Officials at agencies in other states said they also 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 Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Jeff Ruch, executive director for the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the orders go beyond what has occurred in prior presidential transitions.
Ruch noted that key posts at EPA have not yet been filled with Republican appointees, including Trump's nominee for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. That means there are not yet the new senior personnel in place to make key decisions.
Some advocates said the orders were having a chilling effect on EPA staff. Trump and Pruitt have been critics of the agency and have questioned climate science that indicates the Earth is warming and that man-made carbon emissions are a factor.
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.
Ericksen, the transition spokesman, said he expects the EPA communications ban to be lifted by the end of this week.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday he had no information on the blackout. He said aides were looking into the circumstances. For now, staffers in EPA's public affairs office are instructed to forward all inquiries from reporters to the Office of Administration and Resources Management.
"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.
"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.
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 Associated Press.
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.
Maryland Department of Agriculture spokesman Jason Schellhardt said the agency had not had any contact with USDA about any media blackout.
"At this time, we do not expect the directive to have any effect on our agency," he said.
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 retweeted a pair of posts to its 315,000 followers that compared the crowd gathered on the National Mall for Trump with the much larger gathering in the same spot eight years earlier for President Barack Obama's swearing-in.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance and the Associated Press contributed to this report.