By John O’Grady
Hidden deep in EPA’s 2018 budget is a little-known plan by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to stop paying over $25 million to a Justice Department environmental division for work on cases against polluters that his own agency has asked it to file. This was uncovered by The New York Times Wednesday.
You may not know the name of the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) of the Justice Department, but you’ve certainly heard of their work. Lawyers from ENRD filed actions to address wrongdoing in the Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez and Volkswagen cases and forced many more companies in all 50 states to pay for the damage caused by unlawful pollution.
Because statutes like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act require EPA to request that DOJ lawyers prosecute environmental cases in federal court, ENRD has an important role to play alongside EPA in protecting our natural resources.
If an environmental catastrophe hits your community, you want this small group of expert lawyers to have your back. This must have been how Vice President Mike Pence, an avid fisherman, felt in 1999 (shortly before he was elected to represent the 2nd District in Indiana) when the largest fish kill in Indiana history wiped out 4.6 million fish in a 57-mile stretch of the White River near his district.
ENRD lawyers, with EPA and the state, filed criminal and civil charges against polluter Guide Corporation, in federal court, leading to a criminal sentence, millions of dollars in fines and a complete restoration of White River fisheries. Today, the White River has completely recovered from the fish kill.
By withholding the more than $25 million in the 2018 budget that ENRD needs to prosecute cases on EPA’s behalf, Pruitt is once again acting to undermine his own agency’s mission. EPA has funded the Justice Department’s ENRD in this way since the Reagan administration. Pruitt’s 2018 plan is unprecedented and would eliminate more than 100 staff members in ENRD who work closely with EPA enforcement staff to protect the American people.
It’s hard to know nowadays what is included in EPA’s ”back to basics” mission articulated by Pruitt on EPA’s website: “We can and we will achieve clean air and clean water and we will also have strong economic growth and job creation at the same time.”
Pruitt has defended the Trump administration’s proposed 31percent cut to EPA’s budget, telling Congress that he feels the EPA can “fulfill the mission of our agency with a trim budget.” Included in that cut is a reduction to EPA’s enforcement staff of 25 percent. But Pruitt must know that by secretly cutting ENRD and reducing EPA enforcement staff, EPA cannot possibly accomplish even the “back to basics” mission Pruitt has proposed.
If stopping actual pollution to air and water is not part of EPA’s “back to basics” mission, what is?
Without funding for the essential civil servants, biologists, chemists, toxicologists and lawyers who enforce our environmental laws established by our Congress, EPA and the Justice Department cannot catch the polluters who threaten our drinking water or put the air we breathe at risk.
We cannot afford for this workforce to be compromised.
Pruitt’s plan to cut funding to EPA and ENRD is a plan to help polluters get away with harming the American people in the name of “market certainty”. Members of Congress must act to stop the current appropriations bill, so that everyone — like the vice president — can have a healthy river in their backyard.
John O’Grady is president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Council of EPA Locals #238 representing over 9,000 bargaining unit employees at the U.S. EPA nationwide.