The EPA Budget Cuts Are A Direct Attack on Our Air, Water, and Health

June 13, 2017 | 11:53 am
Pittsburgh, 1947, on the left; Pittsburgh, 1974, on the right. Sources: EPA
Brenda Ekwurzel
Senior Climate Scientist, Director of Climate Science

UPDATE (June 26, 11:30 am): The next EPA Senate budget hearing is scheduled to start this Tuesday, June 27, at 9:30 am. UCS will begin tweeting about the hearing once it starts. For more on how you can stand up for science in response to President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, check out our local action toolkit.

Congress will have a chance this week to question why Scott Pruitt proposes to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency budget by 30%. Let that sink in—nearly a third of the agency’s activities could vanish.

That is unless leaders in Congress stop such a hemorrhage and restore safeguards put in place to protect the air that Americans breathe and the water we drink. What’s more, science should continue to play its rightful role in informing policy at the EPA.

Perhaps some are taking clean air and the associated thriving economy and public health benefits for granted.

I do not take this for granted today because I grew up looking at pictures of hazy street lights turned on at noon in a book on the coffee table with photos of smog in my hometown of Pittsburgh. It wasn’t just hard to see during the day: the smog could become lethal. In 1948 residents lost their lives in a smog event in Donora, Pennsylvania, a town along the Monongahela River valley 24 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. The smog was not just restricted to one region, but also occurred in Tulsa OK, Los Angeles, and beyond.

A recent dramatization can be found in episode four of The Crown regarding the ill-fated decision to place fossil fuel burning power plants near an urban area that contributed tiny pollution particles traced to an estimated 12,000 deaths in the 1952 London fog disaster. Such disasters led to the UK Clean Air Act of 1956 and in America to research and control the problem through a series of Acts in 1955, 1963, 1967 and 1970 with amendments in 1977 and 1990.

To help ensure high quality research and enforcement of safeguards, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970. Among the projected benefits of the amendments to the 1990 Clean Air Act is that by 2020 we’ll have avoided around 230,000 early deaths from particulate pollution, 200,000 early deaths from heart disease, and 17 million lost work days.

Despite the immense progress for protecting Americans since the formation of the EPA, signs already point to troubled times ahead. As my colleague Gretchen Goldman noted, vast science supports a ground-level ozone standard below 70 ppb to protect public health. Yet Administrator Pruitt has delayed the ozone rule another year due to “insufficient information.”

Asking for more time to study a problem is one of the oldest delay tactics in the playbook.

The science has established the combustion of fossil fuels to be the root cause of toxic smog. It’s also the primary cause of climate change. Delay would be an abdication of the EPA Administrator’s legal obligation to reduce CO2 pollution after a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Despite the mountain of scientific evidence, the EPA Administrator has called for a “true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2,” indicating support for a “red team-blue team” approach for such a discussion. But there’s no need for further delay on the fundamental risks of atmospheric CO2. Since the late nineteenth century, science supports the basic fact that climate change is real, is primarily due to human activities, and that we have a choice about the future trajectory of global temperature and sea level as a result.

Leaders in the past ignored the science and ignored the risks, and lives were lost to pollution-induced toxic smog. The atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels also poses a risk to human life, especially if allowed to continue unabated.

It is time to move away from merely surviving—and move to thriving—in America. The EPA can continue to play a key role. That is unless the budget is slashed and deep experience and practical know-how walks out the door, and historical inequities become exacerbated.

We have already lost great leaders in the EPA that no longer can make progress with eviscerated budgets in their programs.

This is not just another routine set of budget hearings. Lives may depend on leaders in Congress asking Administrator Pruitt the hard questions based on solid science and latest economic calculations, with the true costs of burning fossil fuels factored in.

Members of Congress should demand that Administrator Pruitt has the budget necessary to uphold and implement the core mission of the EPA to protect the health and well-being of all Americans.