A Plan to Drastically Cut EPA Staff and Programs Is on Trump’s Desk
Policy + Politics

A Plan to Drastically Cut EPA Staff and Programs Is on Trump’s Desk

REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

The Office of Management and Budget has suggested deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget that would reduce its staff by one-fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs, according to details of a document reviewed by The Washington Post.

While White House officials have already indicated that they plan to increase defense spending at the expense of other discretionary funding, the new document spells out exactly how this new approach will affect long-standing federal programs that have a direct impact on Americans’ everyday lives.

“The administration’s 2018 budget blueprint will prioritize rebuilding the military and making critical investments in the nation’s security. It will also identify the savings and efficiencies needed to keep the nation on a responsible fiscal path,” it reads. “Your [funding] level highlights the trade-offs and choices inherent in pursuing these goals.”

Acknowledging that the steep cuts “will create many challenges,” the document adds, “it also can serve as catalyst for how the agency functions in the next 10 or 20 years or beyond. By looking ahead and focusing on clean water, clean air and other core responsibilities, rather than activities that are not required by law, EPA will be able to effectively achieve its mission.”

 [Trump to propose 10 percent spike in defense spending, major cuts to other agencies]

During his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Trump said he was determined “to promote clean air and clear water” while in office.

The plan to slash EPA’s staff from its current level of 15,000 to 12,000, which could be accomplished in part through a buyout offer as well as layoffs, is one of several changes for which the new administration has asked agency staff for comment by close of business Wednesday. Multiple individuals briefed on the plan confirmed the request by OMB, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The proposal also dictates cutting the agency’s grants to states, including its air and water programs, by 30 percent, and eliminating 38 separate programs in their entirety. Programs designated for zero funding include grants to clean up brownfields, or abandoned industrial sites; the radon program; climate-change initiatives; and funding for native Alaskan villages.

The agency’s Office of Research and Development could face a cut of up to 42 percent, according to an individual apprised of the administration’s plans. The document eliminates funding altogether for the office’s “contribution to the U.S. Global Change Research Program,” a climate initiative that then-President George H.W. Bush launched in 1989.

S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA), said in an email that the proposed cuts would devastate critical federal financial support for communities across the country.

“These cuts, if enacted by Congress, will rip the heart and soul out of the national air pollution control program and jeopardize the health and welfare of tens of millions of people around the country,” Becker said.

Craig Kenworthy, who serves as executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and co-president of NACAA, said in an interview that air officials across the United States would not be able to meet their statutory responsibilities if their funding were cut that deeply. He noted that the Benton Clean Air Agency in central Washington has five staff members responsible for duties including monitoring air quality, issuing permits and letting local farmers know when they can burn fields.

“It’s basically saying to the local agencies, ‘So you still have to meet all the federal requirements, and then you’re going to lose a quarter to a third of your budgets,’” Kenworthy said, noting that he worries that environmental groups could sue them if they don’t fulfill their legal responsibilities. “I understand there may be some people in the new administration who may not like some of the current Clean Air Act requirements … but we still have to meet them.”

Any such cuts would have to be codified through the congressional appropriations process and would likely face resistance from some lawmakers. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who used to chair the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, said he did not think Congress would approve such a steep drop in funding.

“There’s not that much in the EPA, for crying out loud,” Simpson said, noting that he and other Republicans had already reduced the agency’s budget dramatically in recent years. “But if the goal is, we’re going to cut 15,000 employees down to 2,000 – okay, why 2,000? Why not 2,700? Why not 1,500? You know?”

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who succeeded Simpson as chair of the subcommittee, said he could not comment because he had not seen numbers come out of the White House. But he added, “Obviously, you can’t pick up $54 billion out of EPA.”

Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, declined to comment Wednesday on the proposed EPA cuts but said in an email that the panel “will carefully look at the budget proposal once it is sent to Congress.”

“The Chairman strongly agrees that more investment in our national defense is needed and that all federal programs should be reviewed as to their worth and value,” Hing added. “As always, the power of the purse lies with Congress, and any budget decisions will go through the regular budget and appropriations process.”

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the top Democrat on the Interior appropriations subcommittee, said the proposal to cut the EPA’s budget has gotten Americans’ attention

“People are waking up to this,” McCollum said, adding that she has expressed her concerns to Calvert but is unsure how much he will do to resist Trump’s plans. “It’s going to be up to him to get his caucus in line.”

Regardless of the final budget numbers, the instructions to EPA serve as a blueprint for how the new administration plans to delegate many responsibilities to the states even as it cuts the money they will receive from the federal government.

It tells the agency that it should get states “to assume more active enforcement roles” when it comes to enforcing federal environmental standards and it should curtail its compliance monitoring activities.

“EPA is to evaluate ways to reduce federal enforcement inspections while keeping a consistent and effective enforcement program,” the document reads.

The EPA declined to comment on the budget proposal Wednesday. But newly confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has been a longtime critic of the agency and has insisted that one of his top goals will be to roll back key Obama-era regulations, cautioned this week that the particulars of the budget remain in flux.

“I am concerned about the grants that have been targeted, particularly around water infrastructure, and those very important state revolving funds,” Pruitt told the publication E&E News after Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday. “The importance is setting priorities as an agency and then allowing the budget to be formed around that. What’s difficult, having only been there a week, is to have these kinds of recommendations made and then look at our priorities and say, ‘You know what, we’ve got to make sure that we look at these programs.’”

Pruitt said he already had spoken with OMB Director Mick Mulvaney about the agency’s funding.

“What’s important for us is to educate OMB on what the priorities of the agency are, from water infrastructure to Superfund, providing some of those tangible benefits to our citizens,” Pruitt said, “while at the same time making sure that we reallocate, re-prioritize in our agency to do regulatory reform to get back within the bounds of Congress.”

[Pruitt to EPA employees: ‘We don’t have to choose’ between jobs and the environment]

It is unclear whether Pruitt’s appeal would produce any changes: The document states that any requests from agencies to increase or reallocate funds must be accompanied by budgetary offsets. Those could include “alternative funding cuts, balance cancellations or viable user fees.”

It instructs agency officials to “make sure any appeal is consistent with campaigns or other policy statements.”

Agencies must submit any alternative budget proposals to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs by Friday, the document states, and OMB will convene a meeting April 15 to discuss the “initial draft of the workforce reduction plan.”

As details of the blueprint emerged, environmental advocates and the EPA’s most recent administrator criticized the White House proposal.

“This budget is a fantasy if the administration believes it will preserve EPA’s mission to protect public health,” Gina McCarthy, who served as the agency’s leader from 2013 through the end of the Obama administration, said in a statement Wednesday. “It ignores the need to invest in science and to implement the law. It ignores the lessons of history that led to EPA’s creation 46 years ago. And it ignores the American people calling for its continued support.”

Another key area targeted for cuts is the EPA’s enforcement and compliance division. The White House budget proposal outlines millions of dollars in budget reductions and says states should “assume more active enforcement roles.”

“Basically, the direction is to reduce enforcement, which is already pretty strained,” said Eric Shaeffer, head of the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, and a former head of the EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement. He noted that the EPA already has shed about 2,000 positions since 2008. “The notion there’s been this big buildup at EPA is just flat wrong,” he said. “They’ve been bleeding positions for years.”

Schaeffer added that much of the enforcement responsibility already lies with states, but that state programs are often “woefully underfunded” and often at the mercy of state politics and pressure from large companies who can fend off enforcement actions. He said having the EPA as a backup enforcer can give state officials leverage they wouldn’t otherwise have. In addition, he said many states don’t have criminal statutes for environmental crimes, so only the EPA could bring a criminal action. And federal enforcers are typically the only ones that take on cases against large polluters that operate across state lines.

In addition, the White House plan proposes slashes funding the massive Chesapeake Bay cleanup project from about $73 million annually to about $5 million in the next fiscal year.

Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he doubts such drastic cuts would become a reality “because the program is working so well.”

“It’s got great bipartisan support,” Baker said, noting that lawmakers from Virginia and Maryland recent wrote a letter detailing the program’s success. “We think the Trump administration and the Pruitt EPA will want to take advantage of a program that’s so successful, so non-controversial and that is really working.”

Baker, who pointed out that Pruitt also pledged to support the ongoing Chesapeake cleanup during his recent confirmation hearings, said the involvement of numerous states in the cleanup make the federal government’s participation essential.

“The EPA role in the cleanup of the Chesapeake is nothing less than fundamental,” he said. “It’s not just important, it’s critical.”

Environmental justice advocates were particularly alarmed at the cuts they may face under the new administration. The document notes that it supports the idea of environmental justice, but it would eliminate that office within EPA and “assumes any future EJ-specific policy work can be transferred to the Office of Policy.”

Cheryl Johnson, executive director of the group People for Community Recovery in Chicago, noted that the part of the South Side where she and her neighbors live is known as “the toxic doughnut” because it includes 200 leaking underground storage tanks and 50 landfills. The EPA program has given her group and others money to conduct technical assessments of the area’s facilities and provide training to educate local residents, she said, and a place where they could appeal to force local polluters to come into compliance with federal standards.

“Oh, my goodness, it would devastate a community like mine,” Johnson said. “Eliminating the environment justice department is like putting us in a chamber, to be disposed of.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report, which was originally published in The Washington Post. Read more at The Post below.

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