EPA faces bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing a backlash from both Republicans and Democrats over its proposal to cut funding for programs favored on Capitol Hill.

Critics say the EPA’s budget cuts spending on initiatives that have nearly unquestioned backing by a Congress generally divided on environmental issues.

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The programs targeted include a grant that gives trucking companies money to retrofit or replace diesel engines to reduce their emissions, and loans to states to improve their waterways and drinking water.

Republicans are especially fired up over the proposed cuts.

They argue the EPA is requesting more money for controversial programs that seek to limit greenhouse gas emissions while it reduces funds for more popular initiatives, such as the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act grants.

“I understand that the budget is full of tough choices, but one proposal that I’ll let you know is unacceptable, at least to me, is the proposed elimination of the diesel emissions grants,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the EPA’s budget, said at a Thursday hearing. “This is one of the few EPA programs that has been reauthorized in recent years, which is a testament to the bipartisan support of the program.”

The EPA proposed to completely eliminate the $20 million DERA grants and to reduce state water quality revolving loan funds by 24.7 percent to $1.8 billion.

“The FY 2015 budget request balances environmental protection with fiscal realities,” EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson told The Hill. “This request supports the continued work of the [state funds] in ensuring that small and underserved communities have access to funding that helps address their water infrastructure needs.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at hearings this week blamed the cuts on a tight federal budget landscape.

“I don’t want to do this,” McCarthy told Calvert. “I want to respect the budget limitations that I’ve been given and make the best decisions I can, and I’m trying to balance a lot of interests here.

“Decisions needed to be made, and they were difficult,” she said.

But the proposals don’t make sense to their champions in Congress, who note that EPA has estimated that each dollar of DERA funds results in more than $13 in health and environmental benefits as old engines are replaced with ones that emit less soot and other pollutants.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) has been a staunch advocate of DERA since it was passed in 2005. Chemical manufacturer DuPont, headquartered in Delaware, makes some of the common diesel filter technologies.

“This program is a bipartisan, common-sense approach to cutting toxic diesel emissions that threaten the lives of our communities and our children,” Carper said in a statement.

Overall, EPA’s budget request was $7.9 billion, a $300 million cut from 2014.

Though lawmakers generally applauded the EPA’s thriftiness, they said they were sure cuts could come from somewhere else.

“I am particularly concerned about the proposed cuts to the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds and the diesel emissions reduction grant program,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environmental and Public Works (EPW) Committee. “These programs are critical to protecting public health.”

“This is something we can all agree on,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said at the EPW hearing. “These are proven programs that are well received be state and local communities and encourage the EPA to work with communities in a cooperative manner rather than a confrontational one.”

Calvert accused the EPA of cutting funds for popular programs in its proposal and then using the money somewhere else while resting assured that Congress would restore the popular funding.

“In doing so, this allows the administration to propose new programs that we just don’t have the funding to pay for in a constrained budget environment,” Calvert said.

McCarthy and Johnson did not respond to Calvert’s accusation.

If that was the EPA’s plan, it appears likely to work, with top environmental lawmakers unwavering in their support for the programs.

Still, McCarthy and the Obama administration opened themselves up to a great deal of criticisms for trying the cut the funds.

“I understand that the EPA, like all federal agencies, has been working to do its part in achieving deficit reduction,” Crapo said. “However … I’m concerned that the EPA has proposed funding reductions for programs that enjoy strong, bipartisan support, and are critical programs, while increasing funding for programs on initiatives that remain controversial.”