Here’s What the EPA Budget Cuts in a Leaked Memo Mean for Health and Environmental Justice

April 7, 2017 | 2:55 pm
Photo: EPA
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Recent news reports point to a leaked memo that provides more details about the Trump administration’s proposed deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) budget. If the details are officially confirmed, it would clearly show that the administration is preparing to undermine health protections nationwide, and especially in low income and minority communities. The administration is also seeking to undercut the role of sound science at the agency.

Congress should refuse to allow these harmful cuts to go forward.

How the budget cuts hurt the EPA’s work

Here’s the big picture: If implemented, the deep budget and staffing cuts proposed by the Trump administration would undermine the core mission of the EPA to protect human health and the environment. There is simply no way for the agency to continue to do its job well while losing about a third of its overall budget, with even deeper cuts to many critical programs.

Here are just three of the many important aspects of the EPA’s work that are harmed by the proposed budget cuts outlined in the leaked memo:

1. Programs critical for public health, the environment and the economy of states.

The Trump administration is attempting to cut budgets and funding for programs that are critical for states. These include:

  • Cuts to grants for state, local and tribal management of air and water quality. These grants are critical for state and local authorities to monitor and enforce air and water pollution safeguards. UCS President Ken Kimmell, former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, recently explained how states are in no position to make up for shortfalls that arise from EPA budget and staffing cuts. This will inevitably threaten public health protections.
  • Cuts to Children’s Health Program resources. The leaked memo says “This decision reduces Children’s Health program resources by $2,391K and 14.9 FTE to prioritize core environmental work.” Wow, that’s stunning! So protecting children’s health is NOT core work for the EPA? That would be news to the American public.
  • Total elimination or cuts to many EPA regional programs, including ones focused on the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, South Florida, San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound. All these programs not only help reduce pollution, they are also vital for the regional economies. The Chesapeake Bay program, for example, is a collaborative effort between Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the EPA, focused on reducing the pollution load in the historically beleaguered Bay and thereby supporting local economies, fishing, swimming, tourism, and protecting drinking water sources (with benefits accruing in waterways well beyond the Bay itself.)
  • Major cuts to the budget of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, including cuts to Civil and Criminal Enforcement and Compliance Monitoring. It’s really hard to see these cuts as anything but a sellout to polluting industries. Robust enforcement is what gives teeth to our nation’s pollution laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
  • Cuts to Superfund enforcement. Superfund sites are among the most polluted sites in the country and EPA works to help clean up hazardous waste and monitor these sites. Take a look at this map and see if you have one of the Superfund sites that made the National Priority List for clean-up near where you live. Just to give a sense around the country: Alaska has 10 Superfund sites, Tennessee has 28, Alabama has 18, California has 112, and Maine has 16. If you live in or near one of the sites that still need remediation, cuts to the EPA’s budget could directly affect you.
  • Cuts to programs that help reduce the risk of pesticides to human health and the environment. Administrator Pruitt has already set a bad precedent through his decision not to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that poses a clear risk to children, farm workers, and rural drinking water users. Cuts to budgets for programs that limit pesticide risks would just continue down that misguided path.

2. Protections for environmental justice communities, especially low-income, minority and tribal communities

Because EPA’s core mission is the protection of public health, its activities are especially important for communities that bear a disproportionate burden of health impacts from pollution. Many of these environmental justice (EJ) communities are low-income, minority and tribal communities. Harms to these communities will be especially pronounced if the EPA’s overall budget is slashed.

As a quick reminder, here’s how the EPA defines environmental justice:

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. 

The agency says this goal will be achieved for all communities and people when everyone enjoys:

  • the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and
  • equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

It’s hard to see who would be opposed to these fundamentally fair and commonsense goals, but it’s entirely in keeping with an administration that has shown itself to be hostile to concerns about racial justice across the board.

In addition to overarching budget cuts that will disproportionately hurt EJ communities, the administration is also proposing to cut specific EPA programs targeted at disadvantaged communities. That’s gratuitously cruel, especially given the small budgets associated with these programs.

Here’s a list of some of the most egregious cuts to EJ priorities: elimination of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance’s Environmental Justice program (and its small grants program); cuts to budgets for compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, elimination of the lead risk reduction program and state grants for lead monitoring and enforcement; and cuts to the Brownfields program that helps remediate contaminated sites and revitalize communities.

Consider the cuts in funding for lead risk reduction programs. States and local jurisdictions simply do not have the funding or the expertise to make up for cuts in federal funding for these vital programs. According to the CDC, which maintains the latest county-level data for lead levels:

Today at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

Lead exposure has serious consequences for the health of children, and can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia. What’s more, according to the CDC, African American children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated blood-lead levels, amounting to a public health crisis in some places.

Or consider the work the EPA is doing to help address air quality concerns in tribal communities in Alaska. Pollution from diesel emissions, indoor air quality concerns, and emissions from burning solid waste and from wood-burning stoves are among the serious challenges these communities face.

Just last year the EPA provided grants totaling over $500,000 through the Brownfields program to Chattanooga and Knoxville, TN. These grants will help disadvantaged communities clean up and revitalize contaminated sites, which in turn will boost the local economy and improve public health. There are many Brownfields success stories around the country.

The recent resignation of Mustafa Ali, a key leader of the EPA’s environmental justice program, is a sad commentary on where this work is likely to be headed under Administrator Scott Pruitt. In his resignation letter addressed to Administrator Pruitt, Ali said:

“When I hear we are considering making cuts to grant programs like the EJ small grants or Collaborative Problem Solving programs, which have assisted over 1,400 communities, I wonder if our new leadership has had the opportunity to converse with those who need our help the most.”

3. Scientific research and data, most prominently climate science

Many aspects of the EPA’s scientific work are under attack, including all of its work related to climate change. Perhaps this is only to be expected under an administration that is peddling a new form of climate denial, but that doesn’t diminish how outrageous these actions are.

(In case you missed it, watch EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s widely-panned appearance on Fox News where he continued his dissembling on the “CO2 issue.” The relevant excerpt starts at the 5:08 mark.)

The Trump administration is aiming to eliminate the Office of Air and Radiation’s Climate Protection Program. This program works with state, local and tribal entities to provide expertise on climate solutions including energy efficiency, renewable energy and adaptation to climate impacts. At a time when the seriousness consequences of climate change are so clear, this type of help is sorely needed.

But that’s not all: Trump’s budget proposes to cut funding for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), a source of independent peer review for the agency’s scientific and technical information and scientific advice for the EPA Administrator. Congress directed the EPA to set up the SAB in 1978 and it has served a very important role through multiple administrations to help ensure science-based policymaking. The leaked memo literally says that cuts to the funding and staffing for the SAB “reflect an anticipated lower number of peer reviews.” I suppose that means this administration has arbitrarily decided to deprioritize independent science and scientific oversight, a losing proposition for the American public.

In addition, the EPA’s Environmental Education and Regional Science and Technology programs are targeted for elimination. The RS&T program works together with a network of regional laboratories around the country to bring good science to bear on environmental protection measures.

My colleague Dave Cooke highlights other important harms related to potential loss of funding for the EPA Vehicle Lab. And Karen Perry Stillerman has written about the impacts of loss of funding for EPA’s work on clean water.

Congress must resist harmful cuts to the EPA budget 

Some of the broader details of the leaked memo accord with the budget blueprint released by the administration last month, which would indicate that these are likely to be real threats. Senators and Representatives should consider the destructive impacts on their constituents in their home states and speak out against the decimation of the EPA’s budget and staffing.

It’s especially important to elevate the concerns of communities that have historically been sidelined and face a disproportionate burden of pollution. Let’s not have another Flint water crisis, or Elk River chemical spill, or Kingston coal ash spill.

Mustafa Ali’s resignation letter, addressed to Administrator Pruitt, also says:

“I strongly encourage you and your team to continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities’ concerns, and value their lives.”

Ultimately, that’s what this is about: Not just budget and staffing numbers at the EPA, but the impact on the lives and well-being of people around the country. Congress, which has the final say on the federal budget, must strenuously resist these cuts to the EPA’s budget.