A continuing resolution would sabotage EPA
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not yet have an annual funding appropriation from Congress and, like other federal agencies, is struggling to operate under a continuing resolution (CR) with funding levels the Trump administration agreed to more than a year ago. One dismal “path forward” would be to extend the CR further, to fund EPA for the entire year.
Such a CR would effectively sabotage EPA by providing less than half, in real dollars, the agency’s 1980 funding, and a workforce at its smallest level since 1987. It would starve the agency of new resources to begin rebuilding to protect our nation’s air, land and water, and to address the existential threat of climate change and the toxic legacy of environmental injustice.
A CR’s principal casualty would be $1 billion in increased funding requested in the EPA budget: to meet regulatory deadlines; hire 1000 new employees; boost support for EPA facilities and operations, enforcement and compliance monitoring, as well as science and climate research; and transform EPA’s environmental justice program into a central focus of agency work.
Despite the absence of a formal EPA appropriation, Congress has separately appropriated $10 billion per year over five years for EPA water infrastructure under the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in November. That funding consists of roughly $4 billion per year in new funding for EPA’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure programs and $3 billion to replace lead drinking water pipes and service lines. It also includes $2 billion to address emerging contaminants, a euphemism for the noxious and ubiquitous plastic byproducts commonly grouped under the label of “PFAS.”
But that money goes to the EPA to distribute to states rather than to support agency programs. And while the infrastructure law creates substantial opportunities to improve distribution of infrastructure assistance, it includes no significant funding for implementation.
The greatest — potentially transformative — opportunity is to direct infrastructure to underserved disadvantaged communities through provisions that $6 billion per year be provided in the form of grants, rather than low-interest loans, with no requirements that recipients pay a share of project costs. That will make the assistance accessible to disadvantaged communities that cannot afford to repay loans or share project costs and have not gotten a fair share of $190 billion in EPA water infrastructure assistance since 1988.
The infrastructure law does not prescribe how to distribute that money, but EPA is urging states to direct it to disadvantaged communities and to projects with no other available source of funding. EPA is also offering to work with disadvantaged communities to help them overcome barriers in applying for and receiving funding.
But the infrastructure law provides no resources for such help or for advancing the administration’s Justice 40 Initiative by directing 40 percent of the benefits of water infrastructure to disadvantaged communities. And a CR, which would freeze environmental justice spending at last year’s level of $12 million, would provide no such support.
The lead replacement program also faces implementation challenges from uncertainty about the extent and locations of lead service lines and the costs of replacing them. There are estimates that lead service lines provide drinking water to 32 million people and 6 million to 10 million homes as well as 400,000 schools and childcare centers. There is an even wider range in estimates of the cost of full lead service line replacement from $16 billion to $80 billion. Particularly troubling, given how severely lead affects children, is uncertainty about the prevalence of lead in school water systems,
But the biggest implementation challenges, illustrating the perils of using funding formulas to address one year’s needs in a later year is in addressing PFAS pollution. The infrastructure law provides $2 billion per year in drinking water and infrastructure assistance to address PFAS pollution.
That is a helpful step, but EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap shows that PFAS pollution is more than an infrastructure challenge. PFAS pollution is complex and multi-faceted and can be found in surface water, groundwater, soil and air, as well as in a wide assortment of places, from remote rural areas to densely-populated urban centers. And PFAS compounds are used in a wide range of consumer products and industrial applications.
Consistent with the breadth of the problem, the roadmap enlists senior managers from eight agency offices and the 10 EPA regions. This aim is to develop and implement a “comprehensive strategy to protect public health and ecosystems by researching, restricting, and remediating PFAS contamination,” and “inclusive engagement with all stakeholders.”
A CR would limit funding for EPA’s PFAS work to last year’s level of $65 million, including $6.5 million to implement the then-current EPA PFAS action plan. The roadmap describes the pervasive scientific, regulatory, remedial and logistical challenges of characterizing, understanding and addressing PFAS. Using last year’s funding to implement a meaningful PFAS program would be little better than a travesty.
EPA needs a funding appropriation robust enough to advance the priorities set forth in the 2022 EPA budget request, and to implement the bipartisan congressional priorities funded under the infrastructure law. The paltry and misdirected funding a CR would provide would do neither. It would effectively sabotage both of those important priorities.
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.
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