A reported proposal by the White House to sharply cut the budget and staff of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and to zero out a number of agency programs has drawn a sharp rebuke from Democrats, scientists, and environment groups.
The proposed plan from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for fiscal year (FY) 2018 would reduce EPA’s budget by about 25%, from about $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion annually, and trim staff by about 20%, from about 15,000 to 12,000, according to the Washington Post and confirmed by Eos.
The plan, which comes at an early stage of the budget process, recommends zeroing out many agency programs and grants, including initiatives focused on global change research, implementation of the Clean Power Plan, clean diesel funding under the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, environmental justice, and environmental education. Funding for other programs that address human exposure to radon, the cleanup and reuse of “brownfield” properties, and energy conservation through Energy Star grants also vanishes in the proposal. In addition, the Chesapeake Bay cleanup project would drop from $73 million to $5 million in FY 2018, according to the Post.
“If the reports on the planned cuts to EPA’s budget and staffing are accurate, they would be devastating to EPA’s ability to carry out its mission of protecting human health and the environment,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said in a statement released to Eos. “They would also show that President Trump was not at all serious when he pledged to ‘promote clean air and water’ in his address to Congress. I will do everything that I can to work against this pernicious ‘budget blueprint.’”
The Opening Salvo
Dina Kruger, former director of the EPA’s Climate Change Division, called the proposals “the opening salvo” of the budget process. That process includes a back and forth between the agency, OMB, and Congress.
Some of that back and forth was evident on Thursday when newly sworn in EPA administrator Scott Pruitt questioned some of the cuts while speaking at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D. C. “I want you to know that with the White House and also with Congress, I am communicating a message that the Brownfields Program, the Superfund program, water infrastructure…are essential to protect,” Pruitt said.
“One would have hoped that the administration would take some time to actually understand what they are getting rid of,” said Kruger, founder and principal at Kruger Environmental Strategies. The Diesel Emissions Reduction act, for instance, “is about clean diesel on school buses so kids aren’t choking on particulates,” she told Eos.
“It’s unfortunate that the administration is moving so quickly to reduce funding to certain programs, in addition to cutting staff so significantly, without actually having really engaged with staff and the senior level career people at EPA to really understand what these programs are and why they matter,” she said. Kruger, who was at EPA from 1989 to 2011, said she “never saw a transition like this one at EPA in the sense that the new team came in and was more interested in taking things apart than in trying to understand why the programs were important.”
Climate Programs on the Chopping Block
Travis Nichols, spokesperson for the environment group Greenpeace, decried proposed cuts to the agency’s environmental justice program and to initiatives related to climate change. “These things are what need to be in place for the United States to meet its Paris climate agreement commitments,” Nichols told Eos.
John Topping, president of the Washington, D. C.–based Climate Institute, which focuses on global climate change mitigation, told Eos that OMB is “initially targeting a lot of the wrong things.” Topping, a former staff director of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said that the agency’s climate programs have enabled the United States to help persuade China, India, and other countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Some U.S. emission monitoring efforts have already been curbed by the Trump administration. EPA administrator Pruitt signed a notice on 2 March that allows oil and natural gas industry owners and operators to stop providing information on equipment and methane emissions at existing oil and gas operations. That information was requested by the Obama administration.
Reversing Progress on the Chesapeake Bay and Radon
OMB’s proposal to slash funding for EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program “would reverse restoration successes,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation president William Baker said in a statement. He called EPA’s role in the cleanup of the Chesapeake “critical,” noting that the agency coordinates science, research, and modeling to implement a clean water blueprint for the bay. Reducing funding for the bay’s cleanup, which began under the Reagan administration and has bipartisan support, “seems inconsistent with the president’s remarks about clean water,” Baker said.
Peter Hendrick, executive vice president of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, said cuts to EPA’s radon program could eliminate state programs and grants and all of the agency’s initiatives to fight radon, which EPA says is the second leading cause of lung cancer. “If these cuts went through, we would probably see about 40 of [46 state] programs close within a year,” Hendrick told Eos.
A Campaign Promise
As a candidate, President Donald Trump promised to eviscerate the EPA. “Department of Environmental Protection—we are going to get rid of it in almost every form. We’re going to have little tidbits left but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out,” he said at a 3 March 2016 debate among Republican presidential candidates.
“They won’t get rid of the agency totally because that would set up a war cry among the American citizenry,” said John O’Grady, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 238, which represents about 9000 EPA employees. Instead, the administration might praise the agency as having done such a good job that states now can manage many of its programs, or the EPA might get buried inside another department, he told Eos.
“People who want to get rid of EPA have spun a story that we are just bureaucrats, we are just standing in that way of progress, that we’re killing jobs. And that’s so far from the truth that it’s not even laughable,” he said. “We are dedicated American citizens: We protect the air, we protect water, do it for the American people, and we just want to do our jobs.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer