EPA's birthday gift to America: More pollution

EPA's birthday gift to America: More pollution
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EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Smoke from wildfires has reached Europe | EPA postpones environmental justice training | UN report: Countries have failed to meet a single target to protect wildlife in last decade EPA postpones environmental justice training after White House memo OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' MORE purported to “celebrate” EPA’s 50th birthday with a Sept. 3 speech that laid out an agenda for the agency that is chilling even as it understates the damage that the Trump-Wheeler team plans for it and for our nation’s people. 

The stated Wheeler agenda ignores much of what science tells us about environmental damage to human health, calculates the costs and benefits of regulations using a formula that downplays the hundreds of billions, or even trillions of dollars in benefits from EPA environmental programs and continues the wholesale rollback of vital environmental protections. 

But the worst part of the Trump-Wheeler plan for America’s environment is hiding in plain sight in the administration’s proposed FY 2021 EPA budget. That plan is for multi-billion dollar budget cuts to EPA and state environmental programs. Its $2.4 billion in cuts would shrink EPA’s already diminished workforce and reduce its budget, which is now less than half, in real dollars, what it was in 1980

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The proposed budget even cuts EPA programs that Wheeler touted as priorities in his speech: $100 million from the agency’s Superfund cleanup program and $175 million from programs that aid our nation’s low income communities and people of color.  

The Trump-Wheeler budget would slash nearly half a billion dollars (43 percent) from grants for state environmental programs, even though many states have already suffered severe funding cuts. These state programs depend on federal funding for roughly 25 percent of their operating budgets. 

The budget claims to prioritize “clean and safe water,” but reduces support for these protections by $1.4 billion, including $782 million in cuts to infrastructure for treating water and drinking water and $256 million from grants to help states control water pollution. 

Although Wheeler has identified safe drinking water as our greatest environmental challenge, the budget cuts 36 percent from support for state safe drinking water activities and cuts, rather than increases, support for EPA drinking water protection.

The budget promises to “improve air quality,” but would cut funding for that goal by $376 million (46 percent). Although 80 percent of our nation’s people live within three miles of a hazardous waste facility, the budget reduces support for the hazardous waste program by 20 percent. It also proposes to slash programs that provide protections from underground storage tanks and inland oil spills by 42 percent, and cuts funding for risk reviews of toxic substances by 24 percent and the pesticide licensing program by 17 percent.

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The words of Wheeler’s speech say he wants to improve EPA science, and the budget promises to “prioritize robust science,” yet the administration would reduce science funding by $215 million, or 43 percent. These cuts are actually one front in a virtual EPA war on science, replacing independent scientists with energy industry employees on science review bodies, ignoring science findings in shaping rules, and even proposing a rule requiring EPA to ignore scientific evidence about human health effects, with Wheeler’s speech promising (or threatening) several more on the way.

Perhaps the most transparently disingenuous element of Wheeler’s speech is the lip service he gives to environmental justice, dutifully mentioning reducing communities’ environmental burdens and “revitalizing minority communities.” 

These claims brazenly distort the shameful Trump-Wheeler environmental justice record. The Trump administration’s first budget proposed to eliminate the environmental justice program altogether, and when that proved politically unpalatable, the administration contented itself with shrinking it to near invisibility. By 2019, the EPA environmental justice program was supported by only .07 percent of the agency’s budget, received .05 percent of overall agency grant funds to issue as environmental justice grants, and operated with .15 percent of agency staff. 

Not content with that carnage, this year’s budget proposes an additional 73 percent cut to two environmental justice programs, along with 90 percent in cuts to a host of programs that protect minority, tribal and low-income communities: basic drinking water and sanitation such as flushing toilets and running water for poor communities along the U.S.-Mexico border and Alaska Native villages; safe water for small and disadvantaged communities; grants to reduce diesel emissions that cause devastating air quality problems for urban communities of color; and grants to help tribal nations manage their lands. As noted above, these cuts add up to more than $175 million. 

As grim a future as Wheeler’s speech promises, the real Trump-Wheeler blueprint for EPA is far worse. That blueprint is for wholesale and massive cuts across the board to EPA and state programs, with the worst cuts to programs that advance environmental justice. It underscores what Wheeler’s words do not, that the long-term goal remains, as Trump stated in 2016, to reduce EPA to “tiny pieces.” This will represent a “win” for polluters, but it will make losers — not to say chumps — of every American. We all need environmental protection. 

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.