EPA needs an annual appropriation that will fund the Biden environmental agenda

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While Congress debated President Biden’s now stalled Build Back Better proposal, it kept the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the rest of the federal government operating under a series of agreements to continue funding at last year’s level. The innocuous term for this insidious mechanism, “continuing resolution,” (CR) scarcely does justice to the devastation it is inflicting on EPA while in place. 

In this case, a CR will continue funding at a level the Trump administration negotiated last year, during its continuing assault on EPA’s ability to carry out its historic role of protecting our nation’s air, land and water.  Last year’s funding was the culmination of long-standing efforts to diminish the agency, with the agency’s staff during the Trump administration reaching its lowest level since 1987, and EPA spending less than half, in real dollars, what it was in 1980. Continuing such funding for a full year would be catastrophic for the agency.  

A complicating factor is that the recently-enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides EPA with $60 billion in new funding over five years. That more than doubles EPA’s annual spending, and dramatically expands its role in protecting the environment. But nearly all of the funding goes to the states, and there is no support for rebuilding or restoring the agency.

That makes it even more urgent for EPA to receive an annual appropriation that will help it begin rebuilding and restoring its historic role of protecting our environment. The Biden administration’s budget request aims to do that, while also expanding EPA’s role in addressing the existential threat of climate change and the toxic legacy of environmental injustice.  Thus, EPA’s budget requests a $2 billion funding increase, including $110 million for 1000 new EPA employees, to rebuild EPA’s depleted staff and restore its capability to protect our nation’s air, land and water.

The budget request prioritizes enforcement to address widespread serious environmental violations, and the disproportionate burdens a handful of the worst polluters impose on already overburdened and disadvantaged communities. The request seeks nearly $200 million for enhanced enforcement and compliance monitoring, improved environmental justice mapping and to upgrade a disgraceful national air monitoring system that often ignores serious air pollution problems. The new system will provide timely and accurate information to fence-line and front-line communities as well as facilitate more effective and targeted enforcement.

The budget also includes a $60 million boost to a program to reduce diesel emissions that are choking ports and disadvantaged communities and $100 million in new science and research funding, including $60 million for climate work.  To help rebuild the agency, it includes $125 million to increase legal support and improve EPA operations and administration as well as information management and technology. A CR would deny funding for each of these urgent priorities and do nothing to rebuild or restore the agency.

The infrastructure bill provides new resources, $12 billion per year, but nearly all of it will go to states, with no more than 3 percent to EPA for administrative costs. Even so, it is hard to overstate the resource burdens of such an unprecedented infusion of money, far more than last year’s total agency budget of $9.2 billion.  

One basis for comparison might be in this year’s EPA budget request for an $800 million, an 18 percent increase for existing state grants programs. EPA requests $20 million and 80 full-time staff to manage and disburse the additional funding. The new infrastructure funding is 15 times as much.

But that budget request was to expand already-existing programs, and may understate the resources needed for the infrastructure act, particularly for its $30 billion for what will essentially be new programs. That means EPA will need to create, more or less from scratch, new procedures, requirements and staff to disburse $6 billion per year, more than the total funding currently provided through all EPA grant programs.

The largest new program will provide $3 billion per year to replace lead pipes and service lines that deliver drinking water to 10 million homes as well as 400,000 schools and daycare centers serving 15 million to 22 million people. Another program will spend $1 billion per year to replace existing school buses with reduced or zero-emission buses

But the best illustration of the resource demands of new programs is the $2 billion per year to address “emerging contaminants,” the noxious and ubiquitous plastic-based pollutants known by the shorthand term PFAS.  EPA’s budget request describes what will be needed for a PFAS program. It will require accelerating toxicity studies and research to inform the regulatory step of designating PFAS as hazardous substances and setting enforceable limits for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act and technical assistance grants to help State and local governments deal with PFAS contamination. Nevertheless, the only support for EPA’s PFAS work in the infrastructure act is $60 million for EPA “salaries, expenses, and administration.” 

Thus, the infrastructure act provides no funding to rebuild and restore EPA. And by definition, a CR would provide no new funding at all, either for rebuilding the agency or advancing the administration’s climate and justice priorities. EPA needs an appropriation to advance the Biden agenda not a funding resolution that continues the Trump agenda.

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 David Coursen Environment EPA Joe Biden Pollution public lands and water

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