Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

Who needs clean air, water & soil?

Well then. If there was ever any doubt that the new administration’s oft-stated commitment to “clean air and water” was insincere, there’s no question now. Just as Trump was reading these hollow words in his address to Congress, his team was proposing draconian cuts to the agency whose job it is to protect our resources and health.

This is both hugely irresponsible and foolish. For one thing, scientific evidence linking exposure to pesticides and other chemicals with human health and environmental harm is stronger than ever before, and communities across the country are in harm’s way.

Not to mention that our country — and the globe — already faces a dramatic uptick in climate chaos. Farmers, rural and coastal communities are bearing the worst of it as floods, violent storms, record-breaking temperatures and droughts become commonplace.

So just when we need to be ramping up capacity at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect our communities, Team Trump is demanding dramatic reductions. Why?

Cuts that hobble

First a quick look at some of the ugly details. If approved by Congress, the administration’s budget will slash staffing by 20 percent and the agency’s overall budget by 25 percent, shifting enforcement responsibilities to states while cutting resources to help them do it. EPA staff have been directed, for example, to craft a plan to eliminate two regional offices, directly undermining the agency’s support for state programs.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the “alternative facts” mindset of White House leadership, EPA’s science capacity is a particular target. The word “science” has been removed from the mission of the Office of Science and Technology, and the agency’s scientific research program has been directed to plan for a 40 percent cut.

A senior official at the agency warned that cuts of this magnitude would cause the agency’s research office to “implode.” Mr. William Becker, leader of a national association of local and state air pollution control agencies, told Science magazine that such cuts would “totally undermine” EPA’s ability to set science-based pollution standards that protect public health.

Other programs targeted for dramatic reductions include the office that screens and takes action on endocrine disrupting chemicals (many pesticides fall in this category), and funding to protect regional resources like the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. Not surprisingly, climate change and environmental justice programs are simply slated for elimination.

Former EPA leaders alarmed

It’s not just public interest groups like PAN and our partners who think these cuts are a bad idea. Several former EPA Administrators have expressed deep concern over the direction the Trump Administration is headed. In a New York Times column this week, William D. Ruckleshaus — who ran the agency under both Nixon and Reagan — issued a stern warning:

One of the factors leading to the creation of EPA was the recognition that without a set of federal standards to protect public health from environmental pollution, states would continue to compete for industrial development by taking short cuts on environmental protection. Budget cuts . . . run the risk of returning us to a time when some states offered industries a free lunch, creating havens for polluters.”

In other words, he concludes, the proposed cuts could start a race to the bottom that will harm us all.

Another Republican appointee, Christine Todd Whitman — who led the agency from 2001 to 2003 under George W. Bush — publicly criticized Scott Pruitt’s confirmation as head of EPA:

I don’t recall ever having seen an appointment of someone that is so disdainful of the agency and the science behind what the agency does.”

The reality of this disdain was firmly reinforced again this week, when Pruitt publicly contradicted widely accepted science on climate change.

So who wins?

EPA has long been a favorite symbol of “government overreach” and “regulatory burden” for small government advocates. The reality? Despite its critical mission and (until recently) broad bi-partisan support, EPA is one of the smallest federal agencies in town.

Its lean $8.2 billion budget — already down 20% since 2010 — is dwarfed by the budgets of the Department of Agriculture ($24.6 billion), Energy ($32.5 billion) and of course Defense ($582.7 billion). And about 40 percent of EPA’s budget goes out the door in the form of assistance grants to help tribes, states and cities implement on-the-ground cleanup and enforcement efforts.

In a letter to Administrator Pruitt earlier this week, the Environmental Council of the States noted that the currently proposed cuts “will have profound impacts on states’ ability to implement the core environmental programs as expected by our citizens,” including, among other things, air and water monitoring and protection.

Nobody voted for contaminated air, water or soil. So why gut EPA? Who wins?

Corporate interests are the only winner here. From biotech/pesticide CEOs to oil and gas industry executives, corporate leaders seem determined to squeeze out every penny of profit before the inevitable shift to more sustainable systems. In both the short and long term, it’s our communities that pay the price.

Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

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