President Donald Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign that he would only "leave a little bit" of federal rules that protect human health and the environment. Now about 50 former officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are firing back in a lengthy analysis that details, program by program, what amounts to a starvation diet for the EPA.
Calling themselves the Environmental Protection Network, they worked through both Republican and Democratic administrations. The group's members are putting aside their differences over policies and programs to stop what they say "appears to be nothing less than a full-throttle attack on the principle underlying all U.S. environmental laws—that protecting the health and environment of all Americans is a national priority."
Even before formally registering as a nonprofit organization, the network has put together a 50-page analysis of the president's proposed EPA budget, based partly on the White House's fiscal 2018 budget blueprint. The blueprint, released on March 16, sketched out top-line cuts of 31 percent of the agency's budget and 21 percent of its staff. The new administration's targeting of the agency requires an independent, expert assessment of what's happening there, the group says.
Its analysis, single-spaced with wide margins and small type, can be downloaded here.
The analysis is also based on an earlier, confidential budget document called a passback, which makes program-by-program funding estimates. While some of the EPA passback has appeared in the press, the group said in a footnote that it relied on a copy provided to it by William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, a nonprofit that represents state and local air pollution control departments. 1
Requests for confirmation were sent to the EPA and Office of Management and Budget press offices, which have not yet replied to email or phone calls.
Below the EPA's large-scale missions is a constellation of little-known programs that have become a part of the EPA's approach to health and environmental protection over nearly half a century. Although, or perhaps because, the individual programs are smaller and more specific, they demonstrate at a granular level the sweeping nature of the proposed cuts.
Here are five changes the network's analysis says President Trump has proposed, along with the risks they were created to curb. The number of EPA programs targeted for elimination is more than 10 times as long as this list.
The EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention runs a program that screens and tests endocrine disruptors, chemicals that can harm reproductive health and child growth and development. The White House's proposed budget would shrink the program from $7.5 million to $445,000, to be spent shutting down the work, according to the Environmental Protection Network's report.
A note in the passback explains that the program has seen a pivot toward using modern tools that, "while important to the future of chemical risk assessment at EPA, has eclipsed efforts by the program to deliver on its original mission." By June, the EPA and OMB are supposed to discuss how to incorporate endocrine disruptor screening into existing work on risk.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that, when it seeps up from under a house, can pose health risks to occupants. The new budget would cut by 80 percent the $2.9 million in spending on a federal radon program and an $8 million grant program to states and tribes, the EPN report says. About 21,000 people a year die of lung cancer believed to be caused by radon.
The proposed budget removes a federal-state program that would computerize shipping manifests, currently maintained on paper, of trucks carrying hazardous materials. "Seems like a no-brainer," Wyeth said of the modernization, "but it is eliminated."
The passback suggests that the first version of the system, called E-Manifest, be completed using other, undedicated agency funding.
Airborne chemicals and toxins
The EPA spends about $92 million a year researching how air pollution affects people and nature and how best to control which pollutants. According to the group, the proposed budget would halve funding for a program the analysis lauds as a critical success. The EPA estimates (PDF) that by 2020, Clean Air Act measures will reap $2 trillion a year in benefits for $65 million in costs, according to the Network report.
The passback zeroes out the EPA Office of Research and Development's contribution to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, set up in 1989 to coordinate the government's research and analysis of climate change. Also included in the cuts are the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) graduate student fellowships. OMB directs EPA in the passback to focus its resources on initiatives "that are either related to statutory requirements or that are related to basic research inquiries."
The White House budget proposal would eliminate the Border 2020 program, an EPA venture with Mexico's Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources, the report says. The program helps communities north and south of the border cut pollution and secure access to cleaner air and water. The partnership posits that the environment, and poverty, don't have international boundaries but may have international solutions. The budget is about $3 million. A $10 million grant program that funds water and wastewater infrastructure projects on the border would also be eliminated.
Some of the cuts above may be a part of traditional budgeting gamesmanship between the executive and legislative branches. Presidents fairly commonly zero out programs they know Congress loves and will fund anyway. For example, the White House proposal eliminates popular grants made under the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act. President Barack Obama proposed dramatic cuts to the same program, which Congress tended to restore.
Bigger-ticket proposed cuts to the EPA have been reported widely in the past week, but "the most galling may be the least sexy," said George Wyeth, a leader of the group and an EPA lawyer from 1989 until earlier this year.
Wyeth flagged many programs he said were crucial. "The cuts to state grants are appalling," he said. "The states are where much of the work on the ground occurs—permitting and much of the enforcement." Budget cuts to these grants rose from 30 percent in the passback to 45 percent in the budget blueprint. Cuts to state grants appear to be inconsistent with the administration's governing philosophy, which would balance federal environmental protection authority with that of the states, according to the EPN analysis.