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The terrible environmental costs of stagnant EPA funding

The terrible environmental costs of stagnant EPA funding
© Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Two decades of stagnant funding have left the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) without the resources to take vital actions to protect human health and the environment. 

The lack of adequate funding has hamstrung the agency’s ability to clean up hazardous waste sites, enforce its own regulations, ensure indoor plumbing to people in rural areas, protect children from lead in drinking water and advance environmental justice for disadvantaged communities and reduce air pollution. The Biden administration has laid out an ambitious environmental agenda, but it can only be fully achieved if Congress is willing to foot the bill.  

EPA’s shrinking capacity was not caused by draconian budget cuts, but by a long history of “level” funding, with each annual budget much like the previous year’s. The value of the dollars in those budgets has continually eroded, and over two decades the cumulative effects have been devastating. In 1980, federal EPA spending, adjusted for inflation, was twice its current level, and in 2004 the EPA budget was 45 percent higher than it is today

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Some of the starkest effects of limited EPA funding are in the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program. Originally funded by a dedicated tax on polluters, the Superfund program now depends on annual appropriations that have been cut nearly in half over the last two decades. Forty years after the program’s creation 1,370 priority sites still need cleanups, with 34 sites awaiting EPA funding to start work. Human exposure is not under control at 127 sites, and there is insufficient data to determine if exposure is controlled at another 138. The burden of pollution from those sites falls on those living nearby and EPA has classified nearly 50 percent of the population within both one and three miles of a Superfund site as “minority.” 

Inadequate resources have forced EPA to cut back on enforcement activities, despite evidence of widespread non-compliance with environmental requirements at many types of regulated facilities, and higher compliance rates at facilities with the biggest health impacts. Worse, a handful of egregious polluters causes an enormous share of pollution, often from facilities near marginalized communities of color and low-income and indigenous communities. Reduced enforcement often leaves those communities unprotected, effectively reducing them to sacrifice zones.

A recent EPA Inspector General (IG) report found declining EPA enforcement activities over more than a decade, increasing the risks from unaddressed violations and undetected pollutants. Not surprisingly, the report concluded that a lack of enforcement resources was the “primary” reason for the declines.

Limited enforcement resources also bear a share of responsibility for deficiencies in the unreliable national air quality monitoring system. With barely one monitor per thousand square miles, the system cannot even measure nationwide air pollution, much less detect the local variations that create hotspots that particularly harm disadvantaged communities. More than a third of our people, 120 million of them, live in counties with no monitors at all to measure the small particle pollution that creates the greatest risk to people’s health.

Disadvantaged communities cry out for environmental justice but EPA’s environmental justice program has long suffered from limited resources. In 2019, the environmental justice office had a staff of 22, far too small to provide meaningful help to thousands of environmental justice communities and received less than half the funding the Clinton administration had requested for it 20 years earlier. Just $1 for every $1,500 in the agency budget went to environmental justice; its grants program was 1/2000th the size of the total EPA grants budget.

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The lack of safe and affordable drinking water and wastewater infrastructure for low income and indigenous communities and communities of color is another national problem — or disgrace — that has festered because of inadequate resources. More than 9 million households receive drinking water through lead pipes and service lines and, even in the 21st century, many people in rural areas lack full indoor plumbing, including a shocking 6 percent of tribal reservation households. Water quality problems plague systems serving more than 44 million people; contamination was recently found in a quarter of those that were  privately tested. Even those fortunate enough to be served by systems with safe water may not be able to afford it, with up to two-fifths of residents in some cities living in neighborhoods where water bills exceed 4 percent of household income and are, therefore, considered unaffordable.

Declining resources also prevented the agency from increasing assistance to states, which depend on EPA funding for more than 25 percent of their operating budgets.  States faced a decade of harsh cuts to their own environmental programs, with 40 states eliminating 5,700 environmental jobs. But EPA was unable to boost its funding for state programs to mitigate the effects of the cuts.  

Inadequate and diminishing funding make it impossible to establish priorities for protecting our people and environment. Even where EPA has spending flexibility, it can generally only find money to address one problem by diverting it from, and possibly neglecting, another. This makes it vital for Congress to provide EPA with sustained, adequate funding to do its job — now and in the future.  

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.