How Bad Are Proposed Budget Cuts at the EPA? Let Me Count the Ways

February 13, 2018 | 4:15 pm
The EPA's Clean Air Act standards protect the health of all Americans, especially our children. Photo: USEPA/Flickr
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

While President Trump just released a proposal that would result in deep cuts for critical science-based agencies in fiscal year 2019, Congress still must pass a spending bill that will determine funding levels for critical agencies that we rely on to advance science, keep our air and water clean, and protect children’s health for the rest of this fiscal year by March 23.

Unfortunately, the proposals currently on the table for funding our government would slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and include harmful “poison-pill” anti-science policy riders, thereby threatening the public health and safety of everyone across the US. 

The proposals to cut EPA funding and undermine the agency’s ability to implement evidence-based policies are deeply troubling given the critical role—and successful track record—of the agency.  Remember the saying: you can’t argue with success? Well, that’s certainly not a saying used by the current administration, nor the appropriations committees in Congress, on this matter. There, the majority party seems to overlook the singular success of the people’s Environmental Protection Agency.  (I refer to “the people’s” EPA because the agency is there first and foremost for us—to protect and preserve our health, our communities, our environment.)

Perhaps these budgeteers think the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink simply improved on their own over time. Or that the polluters decided to ratchet down toxics in our environment out of the goodness of their hearts. Perhaps they forgot that rivers once caught fire and that really dirty air plagued our cities and communities, exacting an enormous toll on the public’s health.

Or maybe they just think our environment is clean enough. Perhaps in their zeal to help EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt “get back to basics,” they ignore the science and data that tell us otherwise. Many communities, along with health professionals, know full well that the environment is NOT clean enough. The proposed cuts by Congress (and the president) to the EPA budget—significant for an agency already underfunded and stretched thin—fail to recognize that air pollution remains a significant risk factor for cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness and premature death in this country. They sideline such facts as:

  • More than half of all Americans—166 million people—live in counties where they are exposed to unhealthful levels of these pollutants—like ozone and particulates.
  • Nearly 3.6 million children and close to 11.4 million adults with asthma live in counties of the United States that received an F for at least one pollutant.
  • More than 24.8 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. Nearly 3.8 million people in poverty live in counties failing all three tests. Evidence shows that people who have low incomes may face higher risk from air pollution.

Ignorance may be bliss for some, but it sure doesn’t protect and improve the public’s health.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

There is no overarching silver lining to the EPA budget proposals coming out of Congress (or the White House)—though I suppose we could acknowledge that their proposals are not as draconian as President Trump would have liked.

There is one significant sliver of good news: Senate appropriators directed the EPA to continue reimbursing the Department of Justice for expenses incurred in litigating Superfund cases and forcing polluters to pay for cleaning sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste. This was a practice Pruitt wanted to shut down. And the bill increases the Superfund program budget slightly (by $2 million).

OK. But, these bits of good news are completely overshadowed by the BIG hit that the EPA would take in the Senate bill along with the litany of poison pill riders that would fly in the face of scientific advice. Given how long ago it now feels that the House and Senate bills came out, and given the looming March 23 deadline for Congress to pass a spending bill or pass another extension, here is a reminder of the bad and the ugly.

On the chopping block

Across-the-board cuts in the EPA budget would be bad enough, but they fall most heavily (and predictably) on some programs in the most recent proposals. No surprise that compliance and enforcement programs are a target. The House proposed a 15% cut in enforcement and a 5% cut in compliance programs within the Environmental Program and Management Account. The Senate bill cuts enforcement and compliance within the Environmental Program and Management Account by 10% each. Never mind that enforcement and compliance programs are essential for ensuring that regulated industries are abiding by our country’s science-based environmental standards—whether through assistance or sanction—and paying the price when they aren’t. (Strong enforcement also helps level the playing field for those companies that comply with environmental regulations. Violators should not get a free ride.)

Cuts to EPA enforcement and compliance programs could also mean:

  • Fewer actions to protect the public, especially young children, from exposure to lead in paint. From October 2016 to September 2017, EPA filed 123 civil lead-based paint administrative actions leading to 120 settlements and three outstanding civil complaints. In fact, EPA enforcement actions have reached a 10-year low.
  • Fewer cases to force reductions in harmful air emissions from petrochemical facilities
  • Less company investment in pollution control equipment to reduce air pollution and to improve public health in local communities previously impacted by pollution
  • Fewer actions to prevent future chemical spills and clean up past ones
  • You get the picture.

EPA’s Science and Technology Account is also on the chopping block, despite the central role EPA plays in providing the research, scientific knowledge, and technologies needed to prevent and abate current pollution as well anticipate and prepare for future hazards and risks. The House bill cuts this critical function by almost 15%, while the Senate bill cuts it to a little more than 10%. This is a significant cut to this gem in our nation’s research enterprise, potentially affecting research areas critical to the health and safety of our children, our communities, and our future. These include, for example,

  • Conducting cutting-edge science to inform quality standards for the water we drink and the air we breathe
  • Evaluating the potential health impacts of chemicals and emerging materials, as well as enabling safer and more sustainable use of new chemicals
  • Developing or jumpstarting the scientific and engineering solutions we need to manage current and future environmental risks
  • Providing the science and technology needed to effectively respond to, and recover from, intentional or accidental environmental catastrophes

These cuts also put the capacity, productivity, and effectiveness of our national labs at risk, as well as the likelihood of additional job loss. (I say additional because Pruitt is already orchestrating an exodus of EPA staff and expertise through hiring freezes, buyouts, and offers of early retirement–see here and here). Among others, this cut puts the National Vehicle and Fuels Emission Laboratory at risk. That’s the one that verified and provided the data needed to prosecute Volkswagen for Dieselgate. And, speaking of diesel, the Senate bill cuts the program that provides funds to replace or retrofit older diesel vehicles by almost a third—from $65 million if FY 2017 to $40 million in FY 2018.

Work on environmental justice is another mission-critical area of the EPA. Established in 1992, EPA’s environmental justice program was established to address the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution on minority, low-income, and disenfranchised communities. The Office of Environmental Justice—though small itself—has provided leadership, support, resources, and small grants to engage and help communities create and implement local solutions to environmental justice concerns where they live. Yet instead of doubling down on this problem, the Senate bill slashes the budget of the office by 10%, which could mean:

  • Less financial support for impacted environmental justice communities
  • Fewer tools, resources, and opportunities for EJ community engagement in EPA policy processes and decisions
  • Less technical assistance for communities to enhance their ability to better understand the science, regulations, and policies of environmental issues and EPA actions

How these cuts make America great is beyond me.

Not content with mere chopping, the Senate bill eliminates the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). This is the program that assesses and evaluates the potential health risks of our exposure to chemicals in the environment. These assessments are used by federal and state regulators (and even internationally) to set exposure limits on hazardous chemicals. Easy to understand why the chemical industry and their favorites in Congress have had their sights on IRIS for quite a while (more on that here).

Now, to be fair, while totally gutting IRIS, the Senate bill transfers resources and directs the EPA to build this effort into its revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Program. The bill also calls on EPA to work closer with industry as it crafts the next generation of risk assessment methods. Should we have any confidence that this new approach will serve the public interest? Notwithstanding the fact that the IRIS program and the TSCA program have different mandates. And it’s Nancy Beck who heads the EPA’s Toxics Office. She is a former policy director at the American Chemistry Council, so just call me skeptical.  And I’m being generous here.

Poison pills—those ugly riders

We can be forgiven for thinking that spending bills are all about funding. But our elected leaders can sneak or even boast about attaching anti-science, poison pill policy riders to spending bills.   And the spending bill introduced in the Senate that should be clearly focused on funding public health and science-based policymaking is no exception.

Here are a few poison pills they are asking us to swallow:

  • Exempt any EPA effort to withdraw the Clean Water Rule from the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). This is the rule that defines which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act. Yeah, the water we might drink fish, swim, or play in.  And bypassing the APA means the agency can withdraw the rule without any public comment. (Score 1 for Pruitt, 0 for democracy.)
  • Require EPA and other agencies to continue to treat forest biomass as carbon-neutral, again sidelining science.
  • Roll back the critical science-based ozone standard which results in cleaner air and healthier people.
  • Prohibit agencies from requiring Clean Air Act permits to emit carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases from livestock production.
  • Prevent agencies from issuing rules that require limits on greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems.
  • Endorse EPA efforts to “reshape” its workforce—another word for downsizing—that is already hollowing out the agency. This loss of experience and expertise will take decades to rebuild.

What to do? Light up those phones!

Congress has until March 23 to pass a spending bill which would fund the government for the rest of the year, so now is a key moment to let your Senators know: Any cuts to the EPA and any “poison pill” anti-science poison-pill riders are unacceptable!

Call your senators. You can reach them by calling 1-833-216-1727.

Tell them you are opposed to any cuts to the EPA budget and to harmful anti-science poison pill policy riders that prevent the agency from doing its job. Speak specifically to cuts in the EPA Science and Technology Account, the Environmental Program and Management Account (which fund enforcement and compliance), the Office of Environmental Justice, and the elimination of the IRIS program.

Call them, and then call them again. Tell them the EPA is the people’s EPA and this bill does not serve the people.