The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered 1,750 special coins to award to its staff for “response excellence” to the 2017 hurricane and wildfire seasons, according to a contract obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The contract for the coins, first reported by CNN, comes as the Trump administration faces continued criticism over its response to last year’s string of devastating natural disasters, especially Hurricane Maria’s strike on Puerto Rico. Thousands of Puerto Ricans still don’t have power more than eight months later, and it’s still unknown exactly how many people were killed — perhaps more than 5,700 — by the storm.
The EPA’s Office of Emergency Management is spending $8,522.50 on a contract with the company Lapel Pins Plus for the so-called challenge coins and display cases. EPA officials plan to hand out the coins to winners of a “national award to celebrate response excellence during the 2017 Hurricane and Wildfire Season.”
After Hurricane Harvey left large swaths of Texas under water, the Associated Press reported on flooding at several toxic waste sites in the state. The EPA then attacked the reporting. Since then, agency testing found Harvey’s rains did damage several toxic waste sites in Texas and the agency has been involved in the slow cleanup. EPA officials have also helped with air monitoring, water testing, and other environmental responses after hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the Caribbean.
The EPA requested the front of the coin have two circles, according to the contract. The inner circle will showcase the “EPA Emergency Response program logo" and the outer circle will say: “HURRICANES HARVEY, IRMA, AND MARIA” and “THE CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES.”
The contractor is designing the back of the coin. “The design should convey the sentiment that staff from all across the country worked together to respond to incidents from Puerto Rico to California (and regions in between),” the EPA wrote in the contract. The coin should also include the words “response excellence” and the year “2017,” per the contract, as well as an outer circle that says, “PROTECTING HUMAN HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT ALL ACROSS AMERICA.”
A concept sketch of the coin, meant to be a guide and not the actual design, was also included in the contract.
BuzzFeed News got a copy of the contract from American Bridge, a Washington, DC–based progressive political action committee, which obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request.
News of the coins is rubbing some former EPA officials the wrong way.
"Thousands of people in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are still struggling with the long term impacts of Hurricane Maria,” Judith Enck, former EPA Region 2 head, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Rather than wasting tax dollars on commemorative coins, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt should be sending letters of apology to the people of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. He has a lot to apologize for.”
When asked about the coins, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told BuzzFeed News in an email: “This is not news: throughout the federal government challenge coins are awarded to various individuals, and the dedicated public servants who worked tirelessly throughout the 2017 disaster relief efforts should be commended for their service.”
This isn’t the first time the EPA has ordered challenge coins to commemorate its hurricane response. The agency ordered coins after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to former officials.
And in his first year in office, EPA head Scott Pruitt wanted to order oversized coins featuring symbols of him and his home state, such a Bible verse, and not the agency’s logo, according to the New York Times. The coins were never ordered.