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Trump's not-so-secret war on state environmental protection

Trump's not-so-secret war on state environmental protection
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Trump’s EPA claims to support “cooperative federalism,” as a way to “rebalance the power between Washington and the states.” But its actual agenda appears to be halting the wave of bold environmental protections emerging from American cities and states. To that end, the EPA now seeks to limit states’ authority to protect our climate, while threatening budget cuts of nearly $1.4 billion in state environmental funding. 

If this effort succeeds, our towns and cities will face dirtier air, hotter summers and more extreme weather — and there will be less we can do about it. 

A centerpiece of EPA’s attack on climate protection is its proposal to freeze car emission standards at 2020 levels, which would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion metric tons.  EPA also seeks to limit state power by revoking a waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows California and a dozen states that follow its lead to set their own more stringent standards.

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State authority to protect air quality has existed in one form or another for half a century. EPA has granted 50 waivers, but has never revoked one. So, it is hard to imagine a more brazen attack on state authority than rescinding this waiver, which was granted five years ago. In effect, Trump’s EPA is forcibly enlisting states in the administration’s war on climate protection.

Another recent salvo in that war is new guidance that would limit state authority over energy pipelines. Under the Clean Water Act, a pipeline cannot be constructed unless the state certifies that it will not cause violations of any “appropriate requirement of state law.” But the new guidance would let the federal government and energy companies run roughshod over state laws aimed at reducing air emissions and addressing climate change.  

Along with shrinking state power, EPA’s conception of “cooperative federalism” also means shrinking state funding, with a proposed budget that cuts support for state environmental protection by $1.4 billion.  

This includes crippling cuts of $500 million in support for state environmental programs, which depend on EPA for more than a quarter of their operating budgets. The biggest cuts, $300 million, are to programs for clean and safe water, with the remaining $200 million directed at programs that protect air quality and manage hazardous waste, pesticides and toxics. These cuts would starve states of vital resources needed to carry out their role as EPA’s partners in administering our nation’s environmental laws and responding to emergencies like hurricanes, floods and severe storms.

The budget also proposes $43 million in cuts to brownfields programs that are key to redeveloping our nation’s cities. Brownfields are contaminated or polluted sites, often in the heart of America’s downtowns and former economic centers. By cleaning and repurposing these sites, cities can improve the quality of urban life and increase property values.  

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EPA calculates that approximately 129 million people (roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population) live within three miles of a brownfield site that receives EPA funding.  As of November 2018, grants awarded by the program have reclaimed 77,000 acres of idle land for productive use, with over 141,300 jobs created and $26.8 billion leveraged.   

The EPA’s proposed budget would also slash more than $140 million from federal support for state and interstate programs to protect and restore nationally significant water bodies like the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Long Island Sound and Lake Champlain.  America’s surface waters are an important source of drinking water for our nation’s communities.    

But the biggest cuts, a whopping $874 million, are to a pair of highly successful state revolving loan funds that have tremendously improved our nation’s water infrastructure by ensuring adequate sanitation and treatment for the water our communities depend on. 

These funds are needed now more than ever. Just ask the people of Martin County, Kentucky; Salem, Oregon; Toledo, Ohio; and Flint, Michigan — who had to stop using their contaminated tap water. 

They are not alone: More than 27 million Americans are served by community water systems that do not fully meet health-based drinking water standards.  Every year our nation suffers a quarter of a million water main breaks, with sewer overflows that discharge billions of gallons of raw sewage into local surface waters. At the same time, some $660 billion will be needed to repair the country’s aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years. 

The good news is that cities and states are fighting back.  Earlier this year, the House passed a budget that rejected all of the proposed cuts, and the Senate seems likely to follow suit. States are already preparing to challenge the regulatory cutbacks in court. As for water quality certification, the strong language of the Clean Water Act recognizing state authority likely means that any new EPA steps to undercut that authority will be rejected by the courts.

For Trump’s EPA, “cooperative federalism” means that states cooperate while the federal government kneecaps state-level efforts to protect people and the environment. And this is from an administration that ostensibly supports states’ rights. It’s chilling to wonder how far EPA might go if it wanted to weaken the role of the states. Let’s hope we never find out.

David F. Coursen is a former attorney in the EPA Office of General Counsel and serves in the leadership of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit, volunteer organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency's progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protections.