White House eyes plan to cut EPA staff by one-fifth, eliminating key programs

White House eyes plan to cut EPA staff by one-fifth, eliminating key programs

The Washington Post
Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis17 hrs ago
The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters.© Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters.
 

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 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 pursing 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.”

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; a national electronic manifest system for hazardous waste; environmental justice programs; climate-change initiatives; and funding for Alaskan native 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 then-President George H.W. Bush launched in 1989.

S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, 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.

Any such cuts would have to be codified through the congressional appropriations process and would likely face resistance from some lawmakers.

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.”

Nonetheless, the instructions to EPA serve as 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 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 keep 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 one of his top goals will be to rollback 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 President 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,” he 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.”

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.”

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 blasted 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.”

Greenpeace spokesman Travis Nichols insisted in an email that is not accidental the proposed cutbacks would disproportionately affect poorer Americans and minorities.

“While this ‘zero out’ strategy would impact nearly every community in the United States, a close examination shows the burden of these cuts will fall hardest on the health of low-income Americans and people of color,” Nichols said. “This is environmental racism in action.”

 

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