As the U.S. Gulf Coast reels from impact of Hurricane Harvey, and Florida suffers through Hurricane Irma, everyone is pitching in. Americans are sending donations of food, clothing, household goods and money.
Scientists from my organization, the Environmental Defense Fund, are on the scene helping Houston monitor a hazardous plume of carcinogenic benzene released last week from a damaged oil refinery.
Career professionals from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are working around the clock as well. These men and women are risking their own health to do what only EPA can do, tapping world-class expertise to protect lives and public health.
For Congress, their heroic work creates a moment of truth: Will Congress give EPA the funding it needs to do its job?
Weakened by declining real budgets for years, the beleaguered agency is not just scrambling to deal with environmental threats unleashed by recent natural disasters; it’s also facing radical budget cuts that would move us backward into a more dangerous and dirtier era.
President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittUnderstanding the barriers between scientists, the public and the truth Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Trump-era EPA board member sues over firing MORE have been pressing for months for historic budget cuts that include slashing key EPA assistance to communities who have suffered disasters.
The EPA plays a critical role during natural disasters by helping communities deal with life-threatening emergencies like chemical spills, fires and explosions. It helps inspect and secure Superfund sites to make sure toxic waste does not contaminate neighborhoods nearby.
EPA specialists assess water systems and deal with sewage spills and help homeowners deal with damage threats like exposed asbestos and leaking basement oil tanks.
When there’s a disaster, state and local officials cry out for EPA assistance, which makes it so jarring when political leaders pat the EPA on the back and take credit for its hard work — even as they support budget cuts that will cripple its ability to help Americans when disaster strikes.
Even worse, these cuts hollow out the EPA by reducing it to its lowest funding levels since the 1970s. They would cripple the EPA’s ability to respond to catastrophes and help Americans everywhere, every day.
For example, the Trump budget would cut efforts to respond to chemical spills and eliminate the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents (including in Houston right now).
The president’s budget would also impose a 40-percent cut to EPA’s Community Right-to-Know programs that affect neighborhoods near approximately 20,000 industrial and federal facilities. It would even scale back training and support for local emergency responders.
Wait, there’s more: The administration’s budget calls for a 30-percent cut to Superfund and Brownfield programs that identify toxic and hazardous waste threats. Even EPA’s Superfund Emergency Response & Removal program, designed to help communities with imminent threats, is singled out for an 18-percent cut.
EPA’s support for air quality monitoring would also face cuts of nearly 30 percent. Communities rely on monitoring to warn parents to keep children inside during "Code Red" days and to learn when disasters and fires release hazardous chemicals.
Under the Trump budget, EPA water programs would also face 30-percent cuts, a blow to communities dealing with fecal contamination and toxin-releasing algae blooms that have shut down water systems around the country.
EPA efforts to monitor the injection of chemicals and wastewater from oil and gas operations into the ground would face similar cuts.
The Trump cuts would also ease up on other underground dangers. The budget calls for a 48-percent cut in support for monitoring of thousands of underground storage tanks leaking petroleum and other hazardous liquids. It would eliminate a program that helps states control pollutants that seep into drinking water from rainfall runoff.
There’s even a 40-percent cut to EPA homeland security efforts that assess risks at major infrastructure facilities. In addition, the Trump budget would eliminate the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which helps low-income and minority communities who often suffer disproportionately during natural disasters.
Of course, behind it all, is the failure by this administration to fulfill its responsibility to limit climate pollution. Climate change makes these storms more powerful, more damaging and more expensive.
For every family, especially their vulnerable children and seniors, these cuts will mean more poisons in the soil and more toxic substances in the water. They will mean more smog, mercury, arsenic and lead in our bodies.
This is a crossroads moment for our country. Congress needs to support a strong EPA to protect our health and help our economy — both when disasters strike and year-round.
Fred Krupp is president of Environmental Defense Fund.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.