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For former EPA worker, now is no time to stay silent

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Retirement suits John Kennedy well.

After more than three decades working out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco office, the Petaluma resident has cultivated an ever deeper connection with his city in the three years since leaving the federal watchdog agency.

He helps manage the community garden at St. James Catholic Church. He volunteers at the Point Reyes National Seashore visitor center. And, increasingly, he is speaking out against what he sees as the dangerous attempt by the Trump administration to roll back important environmental regulations.

“Now I have grandchildren and its becoming even more critical to do what I can — and all of us — to do what we can for them,” said Kennedy, 65. “To see that in jeopardy by this administration, it just fires you up. It makes you mad.”

Kennedy’s politically-engaged retirement has been a stark contrast from the way he used to navigate that world when he worked at the EPA.

Since the 2016 election, Kennedy has been involved with the Petaluma Community Relations Council (PCRC), which assists local immigrants and minority groups that have been under fire during Donald Trump’s presidency. The PCRC holds forums to address intolerance and has also emphasized fire recovery and emergency preparedness since last year’s wildfires.

In March, Kennedy wrote an op-ed that was picked up by USA Today in which he put a magnifying glass on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his efforts to undermine the agency’s abilities to effectively protect the environment while special interests get increased access.

Last week he appeared on MSNBC as a guest on Andrea Mitchell Reports to discuss that piece.

“If (Pruitt is) successful,” Kennedy said, “all the emissions that are taken out of the air by clean-air technologies — he’s launched an attack on the best program we have for combating greenhouse gases, and that will have a big impact on the health of our children and those who are ill.”

Aside from dramatic staff cuts at the EPA, one of the most troubling changes Kennedy has seen is the rollback of vehicle emission standards, which has been dominating headlines recently since California and 16 other states sued the Trump administration to try and stop it.

Much of Kennedy’s career with the EPA revolved around protecting clean air and informing methods to mitigate contamination. In fact, many of the safety precautions used to combat wildfire smoke last October came directly from the research Kennedy and his peers did.

Facing the smoke was a challenge, though. Kennedy has a rare form of lung disease, and had a “hard time breathing,” he said. “With my disease, it was tough.”

To treat his advanced form of cancer, Kennedy volunteered to be part of a study involving a special pill he has to take daily, and that’s led to another clash with Pruitt’s agenda.

The EPA administrator recently pushed forward a new transparency rule that would limit the studies the agency uses to ones that only release the information to the public. Proponents champion it as a victory for transparency, but scientists and public health groups warn that it blocks the EPA from relying on long-standing research that involves confidential participants and proprietary information.

“Health studies utilized in scientific work have confidential information,” Kennedy said. “People that participated in those studies did so voluntarily with the hope that the info they provide in participation leads to improvements protecting the environment and others. They feel they’re contributing to something bigger that can help people. I am personally in a medical study right now to monitor the effect of the medicine I take. Would I want my personal information out there for public review? No.”

Besides political engagement, Kennedy finds time in retirement for other passions. The St. James Church garden that he manages produces almost an acre’s worth of organic fruits and vegetables, 90 percent of which goes directly to the Committee on the Shelterless, an organization Kennedy has been proudly working with since the 1980s.

“It’s a strictly volunteer effort on all our parts, and we put in a lot of effort,” he said. “It’s something to give to our community, and the fresh food is meant to help people that maybe have been struggling in their life, living on the streets but can have a good quality of food to eat.”

At the Bear Valley Visitor Center on the Point Reyes National Seashore, where he works one day a week, Kennedy helps the public find different ways to explore one of the most popular areas of Northern California. Since Kennedy’s education was centered on parks and recreation, getting to volunteer at Point Reyes has been a welcome return to his roots.

“I enjoy going out there and experiencing the park,” he said.

While Kennedy carries on with his volunteer work around Petaluma, he plans to continue speaking out with the national organization he’s formed with other retired EPA employees. Since current workers are usually limited from speaking out, it’s the former EPA members taking the stage, fighting back against the administration.

“I have to base all my opinions on what I’m reading, what I see, and talking to my former colleagues that are involved, too,” Kennedy said. “But it’s very clear to me that the role of EPA administrator is supposed to protect the public health and he’s doing anything but. He’s just helping industry allies.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)