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Congress needs to support EPA’s environmental protection infrastructure

Pollution is dumped into a waterway

Congress got it right with a bipartisan infrastructure law that provides robust funding for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pay for hazardous waste cleanups and distribute to states for critical clean water and wastewater projects. But it missed the boat with an omnibus EPA appropriation that neglects the most important environmental infrastructure, EPA’s core capacity to protect our nation’s health and environment. That infrastructure has been depleted by years of neglect and slow starvation, culminating last year with EPA funding that was scarcely half in real dollars what the agency received 40 years ago, and its smallest staff since 1987.

The Biden administration’s EPA 2022 budget request aimed to reverse the decline in EPA resources with a down payment toward rebuilding the agency and restoring its environmental protection infrastructure, while also addressing climate change and advancing environmental justice. But despite its generous support for physical infrastructure in the bipartisan infrastructure law, when it came to funding EPA’s operations, Congress continued its long-standing pattern —  neglecting EPA’s infrastructure, the staff and programs that enable the agency to protect the environment. 

This year’s EPA appropriation torpedoes the agency’s rebuilding plans by rejecting almost $1.7 billion in requests for new funding.  It includes a token “increase” in support for EPA programs too small even to keep pace with inflation. EPA cannot remain a poor relation among federal agencies and still provide the environmental and health protections the nation requires and demands.

The most direct blow to the agency’s rebuilding plans is the omnibus law’s rejection of a request for $110 million to hire 1,000 new staff to enhance environmental protection and offset the significant declines during the Trump administration. A second blow is the rejection of all but $10 million of the increases EPA included in its request to restore the role of science in the agency with $100 million in new support for science and research. It even rejects a modest $10 million increase to address the ubiquitous and noxious pollutants collectively identified as  “PFAS,” an emerging problem that receives $2 billion a year through the bipartisan infrastructure law. 

The gravest harm is to air quality protection: the omnibus denies $300 million for climate research ($60 million); state, local and tribal air quality management ($100 million), and EPA clean air programs ($140 million). That makes roadkill of plans to upgrade an appallingly inadequate air quality monitoring system that doesn’t adequately measure nationwide air pollution, and has a long track record of missing serious pollution problems.

The omnibus rejects another $175 million for EPA core programs to address toxins and protect water quality; for operations, activities and facilities; and for enforcement and compliance monitoring. The lack of monitoring and enforcement support is particularly harmful, because new data show that serious environmental violations are widespread. Often the worst violations are for the most serious pollutants and a handful of the worst polluters cause a disproportionate share of the harm: 100 facilities — half of 1 percent of the total — produced an astonishing one-third of America’s toxic air pollution in 2014 with the brunt falling on disadvantaged communities that are too often treated as little more than sacrifice zones. The jettisoned air monitoring upgrade could have helped address this with better information to inform and protect overburdened front-line and fence-line communities, as well as help direct enforcement attention to the worst problems.

Another serious cut is $200 million from a requested $290 million to advance environmental justice and address it through a new national program office. Even with that cut the omnibus appropriation adds $90 million to existing environmental justice funding of $12 million. That is by far the largest single increase in support for EPA core activities and should help jump-start progress in advancing environmental justice for our nation’s disadvantaged indigenous and low-income people and people of color.  

Moreover, funding through the bipartisan infrastructure law offsets or mitigates the effects of the rejection of some of the increases requested in the EPA budget.  But nearly all of that infrastructure money goes to EPA to pass through to states, and almost none of it goes to support, much less rebuild, EPA’s core environmental protection capacity.

For example, the omnibus appropriation rejects EPA’s request to add $450 million to support for wastewater and infrastructure revolving loan fund programs, but in the next five years, those programs receive more than $20 billion under the infrastructure law. Similarly, the $330 million in rejected increases for Superfund hazardous waste site cleanups and brownfields site redevelopment is more than offset by infrastructure law funding of $5 billion over five years, $700 million per year for Superfund and $300 million for brownfields projects. And the denial of a requested $60 million boost in support for the diesel emission reduction program should be mitigated by $1 billion per year of new funding for clean school buses that will reduce diesel emissions. 

Unfortunately, the bipartisan infrastructure law contains no provisions that will mitigate the harsh consequences of the omnibus appropriation’s failure to provide $800 million in support for EPA’s core environmental protection infrastructure — programs and staff critically needed to help the agency fully protect people’s health and the environment. Congress will need to do better with EPA’s 2023 funding. 

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 Congress David Coursen Environmental justice EPA federal funding funding omnibus Pollution Superfund

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