EPA Regional Administrator (2008-2017)
Five years ago this week, Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Atlantic seaboard. As the Regional Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, I helped coordinate efforts to prevent threats to public health and the environment before and after the storm.
This fall, I revisited this role from a different vantage point, when I travelled to the U.S. Virgin Islands to help residents who are dealing with the many environmental problems triggered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Remarkably, even as a trio of high-intensity hurricanes have battered U.S. shores this year, many in Congress — including members from storm-ravaged Texas and Florida — are actually trying to reduce EPA’s capacity by cutting its budget. President Trump wants to cut the EPA budget more than any other federal agency.
Their timing could not be worse. With forecasts of even deadlier storms for years to come, it makes no sense for elected representatives to hobble a federal agency with frontline responsibilities to protect lives and health after hurricanes — and every other day.
Long before disasters strike, EPA trains and supports emergency responders to deal with chemical and oil spills. It ensures that chemical and petroleum companies let communities know what hazardous materials are being stored or processed nearby, and that they write disaster plans to minimize the threat of hazardous leaks. And it assesses public health risks posed by major infrastructure and facilities, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and state agencies.
When hurricanes hit, EPA’s emergency response staff, scientists and engineers are essential to keeping people safe. The agency helps prevent and monitors toxic releases and chemical spills from industrial facilities and Superfund sites, and helps inform the public about any local environmental dangers. EPA also helps local communities protect drinking and wastewater systems from sewage leaks and works to get them working again.
After Sandy, EPA staff inspected local Superfund sites to ensure that toxic contamination did not threaten nearby residents. EPA helped get damaged sewage treatment plants back on line, tested drinking water and sent contractors to deal with damaged heating oil tanks. We posted information online and sent staff door to door to inform communities.
The situation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is much more severe. Millions of our fellow Americans do not have electricity, reliable clean drinking water or functioning sewage treatment. St. John has not had electricity since early September. On St. Thomas, the street lights don’t work, the smell of diesel generators lingers in the air and if you are indoors you often smell mold.
Keeping up with these kinds of challenges is hard enough for the EPA. But remarkably, the Trump administration and its allies have been working to cut funding for many of the EPA’s most important disaster-relief programs.
The president’s budget would slash the EPA budget by 31 percent overall, including 35 percent from chemical facility safety efforts, almost 40 percent from community “right to know” and homeland security efforts and 15 percent from programs to deal with oil spills.
Unfortunately, this same disregard for common sense safeguards informs other budget proposals from the administration, which include enormous cuts to weather forecasting tools that protect families and businesses. This summer Trump said he would weaken standards that encourage communities in flood-prone areas to build more durably. He even proposed cutting $599 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The EPA is already hard-pressed to keep up with this year’s surge in big hurricanes. Puerto Rico has seen an upsurge in the bacteria disease leptospirosis, which is transmitted through water, food or soil infected by animal waste.
In Houston, the EPA confirmed a chemical leak from a Harvey-damaged refinery only after independent testing by the Environmental Defense Fund identified toxic benzene as the cause of neighbors’ complaints. And it took EPA weeks to confirm that Harvey’s floodwaters had released dioxin out of a Superfund site at levels more than 2,000 times EPA’s own safety limits.
If Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call, this year’s hurricanes are ringing like a three-alarm fire.
Hurricane Sandy cost more than 140 lives and $50 billion in federal tax dollars. The suffering from this year’s storms is still growing. As climate change makes hurricanes stronger and more destructive, this is no time to be slashing the EPA budget. Congress needs to step up: after all, their own constituents may need the agency during the next storm.
Judith Enck was EPA regional administrator for New York, eight Indian Nations in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands from 2009 until January of this year. She was recently appointed to the U.S. Virgin Islands Hurricane Response and Resiliency Committee.