Energy & Environment

Lawmakers grill EPA chief over push to slash agency's budget

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler appeared before lawmakers Thursday to defend a budget that would bring the agency to its lowest funding level in years.

As with previous Trump administration budgets, lawmakers are expected to ignore the proposed 26 percent cut to the agency, one of the steepest in the budget. 

"We are focused on the core mission of our agency so we can continue to protect the land, the air, the water, and we believe we can do that with the budget we requested," Wheeler told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

But Democrats made clear they planned to reject those cuts, while hitting the agency for what they described as a history of shortchanging important public health programs and sidelining scientists who contradict their policy goals.

"Some of the most significant proposed rollbacks on environmental protections are at odds with the scientific record," said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), highlighting critiques of EPA proposals from its independent Science Advisory Board.

"It is critical that our public health protections are grounded in robust science, and sadly I believe the administration continues to dismiss science and expertise whenever they conflict with their regulatory agenda."

The White House budget would cut more than 50 EPA programs aimed at helping fight pollution, radon and lead as well as those that give clean water grants to small and disadvantaged communities.

It would also cut research and development funding at the agency nearly in half, lowering funding from $500 million to $281 million.

The budget would cut the Superfund program, tasked with cleaning up hazardous waste sites, by 10 percent, despite data showing the agency has the largest backlog of toxic waste cleanups in 15 years.

"Why are you proposing a cut of more than $112 million when you seem to imply you could use more money?" asked Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the chairman of the committee.

Wheeler said the agency would be able to recoup some costs from corporations but defended the agency's record, saying it had been closing Superfund sites at a rapid pace.

Wheeler also advocated for the agency's coming proposal on fuel efficiency, which has already ignited a legal battle with California, which is trying to pursue tougher standards. 

"It's still better to have one national standard," he said. "I hope that when California sees our final regulation when it comes out they will agree that it's the best approach for the entire country."

 The EPA proposal would roll back the fuel economy standards from the Obama-administration, while California has pushed to maintain nearly the same goals, pushing for automakers to reach an average fuel economy of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2026.

The administrator also faced a number of questions about PFAS, the abbreviation for a class of chemicals that have been leaching into the water supply.

EPA announced last week that it would begin the process of setting a national drinking water standard for PFAS rather than just the recommended level it currently has it place.

But Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said the agency has been moving too slowly.

"We have a crisis in this country. Water is polluted, it is poisoned, and in many cases communities don't know it. We need a drinking water standard," she said.

Updated at 5:24 p.m.

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