EPA needs a real budget to rebuild, not a continuing resolution to keep It running in place
After surviving years of reckless proposals to eviscerate the EPA by tea party Republicans and then President Trump, the agency now faces an urgent need to rebuild its capacity and fully resume its work protecting public health and the environment. But as the annual government funding process becomes increasingly convoluted and contentious, EPA’s vital rebuilding could be derailed by a budget impasse or a government-wide shutdown. And as Congress struggles to reach an agreement to keep the government open it may be tempted to pass a continuing resolution, which would leave EPA funded at last year’s improved — but inadequate —level.
That is the last thing EPA needs. After years of stagnant funding, EPA’s budget last year was scarcely half, in real dollars, what it had been 40 years ago, when the agency had far fewer responsibilities and almost no one understood the urgency of addressing climate change and promoting environmental justice.
The House appropriations committee has approved a package boosting EPA funding by $2 billion. The Senate, meanwhile, has not publicly considered annual EPA funding, but has agreed on a “trillion dollar” five-year infrastructure package with $600 billion in new federal spending, including $12 billion a year for EPA, largely for water infrastructure.
Democrats also hope to fund the additional infrastructure in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Plan by slicing and dicing a $3.5 trillion package into a reconciliation package that will include funding EPA’s operation, bypass a filibuster and pass with only Democratic votes. But as Congress stitches these pieces together, it should not overlook the imperative to rebuild EPA and restore its effectiveness.
The $2 billion in new House funding — much of it targeted to address climate change and promote environmental justice — takes important steps to rebuild the agency and restore its core capacity to protect our nation’s air, land and water. It provides $110 million for 1,000 new EPA employees, as well as $80 million for EPA’s water, waste, toxics and pesticides programs and related science work. It also adds $150 million for “nuts and bolts,” including: information security and data collection; management and operation of buildings, facilities and programs; oversight of programs and spending; and support for regulation development.
It also provides $140 million to create a high-level environmental justice office to coordinate and direct the agency’s environmental justice efforts, adding 171 workers to what was a staff of 22 in 2019. In addition, it provides $100 million for new grant programs to empower community members, environmental organizations, states, tribes and local governments to advance environmental justice.
Enforcing our nation’s environmental laws is at the heart of EPA’s mission and desperately needs adequate funding. Serious environmental violations are widespread, and a handful of the worst polluters produce a disproportionate share of pollution with burdens often falling on disadvantaged communities of color as well as low-income and indigenous communities.
Thus, the House budget adds $85 million to efforts that target enforcement and compliance to disadvantaged communities and advance environmental justice. That will be buttressed by $100 million to create an air quality monitoring system providing real-time pollution data to overburdened frontline and fence-line communities, protecting and empowering those communities, helping target enforcement resources, promote compliance and address violations.
The House budget also adds $340 million to clean up and redevelop hazardous waste sites, many of them near disadvantaged communities. Such sites create pollution burdens, reduce property values and magnify the dangers of extreme climate events by disturbing and recirculating contamination at sites vulnerable to flooding.
States are essential EPA partners in environmental protection. They manage the national air monitoring system and implement many federal environmental programs, and EPA funding provides a quarter of their operating budgets. The House budget provides $330 million in new funding to help EPA’s state partners manage air, water, waste and other programs, restore important water resources like the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay, as well as to reduce diesel emissions and target pollution in severely polluted airsheds.
The Senate supplemental appropriation adds $8 billion per year to funding for state revolving loan programs for drinking water, sewage and wastewater treatment infrastructure, down payments on meeting estimated national needs of $750 billion. Some of this critical new funding will take the form of grants, essential for inclusion of disadvantaged communities that have often been bypassed by the loan program because of burdensome eligibility and repayment requirements.
The Senate bill also provides $10 billion for infrastructure to address toxic “forever” chemicals in drinking water and $15 billion to eliminate lead pipes and service lines from drinking water systems, a problem that will cost $45 billion to $60 billion to address.
Most of the Senate infrastructure money will go to states, without rebuilding or expanding EPA’s core capacity to protect public health and the environment. Even so, both the Senate and House bills recognize the need for increased EPA funding to meet a range of extremely pressing demands. Congress should not kick the can down the road once again with a continuing resolution. It should enact an EPA appropriation that helps rebuild the agency and enhances public health and environmental protections. This is not a budget exercise — our health and the health of our planet are literally at stake.
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.