Congress needs to stop starving EPA

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began the 2022 budget cycle with high hopes that Congress would reverse years of EPA resource erosion that produced the agency’s smallest staff and lowest budgets since the 1980s, when it had far fewer responsibilities. But the Consolidated Appropriation Act for Fiscal year 2022 dashed those hopes. It rejected $1.7 billion in new funding requests in EPA’s proposed FY 2022 budget for rebuilding the agency’s depleted workforce and restoring its core capacity to protect the environment, addressing climate change and advancing environmental justice.  Instead, the 2022 appropriation effectively froze the EPA’s budget at the 2021 funding levels the Trump administration had negotiated, with a nominal 4 percent “increase” — less than half the current inflation rate, which reduced EPA resources.

The thumb in the eye for EPA was particularly disheartening after the bipartisan infrastructure law recognized the importance of protecting the environment by providing $60 billion over five years for EPA infrastructure programs. That makes an annual average of $12 billion, far more than EPA’s total operating budget. That infrastructure money pays for hazardous waste cleanups, critical clean water and wastewater treatment infrastructure, to replace lead pipes and service lines that deliver drinking water to 10 million homes and 400,000 schools and daycare centers, as well as to address toxic “forever chemicals.” The money goes to EPA, which passes most of it to states, with almost nothing to support EPA’s core environmental protection activities.

EPA operations are funded through annual appropriations that have, as noted, been slowly declining for years. With EPA’s needs unchanged, this year’s request for $11.8 billion, including $2.2 billion of new funding, covers much the same ground as last year’s.  A centerpiece is the request for 1,900 new staff and more than $1 billion in new funding to restore EPA’s core capacity to protect our nation’s air, land and water and rebuild its staff after the devastation of the Trump years. 

A key priority is addressing air pollution, which the World Health Organization describes as the world’s “single largest environmental threat to human health and well-being.” Indeed, EPA has estimated the benefits of the longer and healthier lives produced by 30 years of air quality improvements under the Clean Air Act at $2 trillion, or roughly $70 billion per year.  

Thus, almost $500 million of the new funding will directly enhance air quality protection. That includes $60 million to reduce the diesel emissions that choke our nation’s ports and transport corridors, $85 million for air research and $100 million to support state and tribal air quality management.  The largest share, $250 million, goes to support EPA air programs. That includes $100 million to overhaul an antiquated and inadequate air quality monitoring system and increase protection for  overburdened front-line and fence-line communities that often bear the brunt of pollution.  

Another $200 million will go to environmental justice, which actually    received a modest increase from its previous level of $12 million under the omnibus appropriation. This year’s request will create a high-level EPA office to ensure that full consideration of the disproportionate impacts of pollution on disadvantaged low-income, Black, Indigenous and people of color communities, is woven into the fabric of agency decisions. The request also seeks $140 million and new authorization to expand environmental justice grants, above the current limits of $5 million in annual funding and $200,000 per grant.

The request also includes needed improvements to other core environmental protection functions. A $90 million boost for enforcement and compliance monitoring will help target violations that disproportionately harm disadvantaged communities. The request also seeks $70 million to protect water quality and safety and $65 million for risk reviews of toxic substances to meet new requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act. It also seeks a $57 million boost in funding to address a class of toxic man-made “forever chemicals” under the umbrella term “PFAS,” by increasing understanding of their human health and ecological impacts and how to prevent and remediate PFAS contamination.

It also includes $230 million in new funding for the mundane but essential nuts and bolts of environmental protection: operating and administering programs; information collection and security; legal, science, regulatory and economic review of agency actions and policies; program auditing and oversight; and buildings and facilities.  

Another $900 million will fund programs authorized under the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Assistance Act, including $565 million for 20 new grants programs. The request includes a modest cut for hazardous waste site cleanups, which receive $700 million under the infrastructure law, and no increase to current funding for state revolving funds for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, which receive $4.4 billion of infrastructure money. Even if Congress follows the practice that it adopted last year of earmarking money — $840 million last year — from the EPA infrastructure appropriation for specific projects, states will still receive more than $6 billion dollars to allocate under these two programs.

Compared to the $12 billion in annual funding provided under the infrastructure law, the money EPA is requesting for its core work of protecting our nation’s people and environment is little more than a drop in the bucket. But it would go a long way toward stopping the slow starvation of EPA and moving environmental protection forward.

David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency’s progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protection.

Tags climate Climate change Environment EPA funding Pollution

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