This is the wrong time to cut environmental protection

Years of declining resources and stagnant funding have brought the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to a point where it no longer has the resources to fully protect public health and our nation’s environment. The Washington Post recently reported that a “lack of resources and workers” has undercut the agency’s ability “to inspect facilities, measure contamination, punish violators and write new rules to stem pollution and climate change.” 

Despite this alarming erosion of EPA capacity, last March a Congress nominally controlled by the president’s party enacted a fiscal year 2022 EPA appropriation that effectively reduced agency resources, with a token 4 percent “increase” — too small even to offset inflation — to the 2021 budget negotiated by the Trump administration. Congress needs to do better to enable EPA to deliver the environmental protection that America’s people want and need.

This week the House Appropriations Committee adopted and sent to the full House a 2023 appropriation that provides EPA $11.5 billion — $2 billion above last year’s level. It includes $1 billion in new funding for EPA programs, science and research, and buildings and facilities. That will help restore EPA’s core capacity to protect our nation’s air, land and water and rebuild its staff after the devastation of the Trump years and rebuild its diminished capacities to measure pollution, enforce environmental laws, set standards and develop regulations. 

The rest of the new funding goes to state programs and drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, and the bill includes $931 in earmarks for specific infrastructure projects. Infrastructure money goes to EPA to serve as a conduit and pass it through to states, not to rebuild the agency or increase its core capacity to protect the environment.

The new funding includes $200 million for environmental justice, a top administration priority. That will be used to dramatically boost financial assistance to support and empower vulnerable communities and to create a high-level EPA national program office to advance environmental justice and civil rights. That office will ensure full consideration of the disproportionate impacts of pollution on disadvantaged low-income, Black and Indigenous communities and all communities of color and see that environmental justice principles are embedded in all agency activities and programs as well as woven into the fabric of agency decision-making.

The House also provides $90 million for enhanced enforcement and compliance monitoring. That would help the agency reverse years of declines in inspections, investigations, and civil and criminal enforcement actions, all of which fell by half during the Trump administration.  EPA currently cannot afford to hire more inspectors, but with new funding it could crack down on polluters and bring charges against polluting factories, power plants and other facilities.

Enforcement can also advance environmental justice because violations are widespread and the worst polluters often impose the heaviest burdens on disadvantaged communities, treating them as little more than sacrifice zones. With more enforcement resources, EPA can identify and target the worst polluters, mitigating environmental injustices.

Pollution monitoring is also critical to effective enforcement. But budget constraints have recently forced EPA to cut back on air monitoring for critical pollutants at more than two dozen locations across the country.

EPA is requesting $100 million to support a presidential commitment to upgrade a disgraceful national air monitoring system that often fails to detect serious air pollution problems, particularly in overburdened and disadvantaged communities. That monitoring system will provide real-time pollution data to the public, focusing on frontline and fenceline communities that face the worst exposure. Information from the improved monitoring system can help target enforcement attention on the worst problems and the heaviest burdens. 

The House appropriation also increases funding for other agency programs, including pesticide registration, water and ecosystem protection and addressing the harmful man-made chemicals commonly referred to as PFAS pollution. There are also increases for the mundane but essential nuts and bolts of environmental protection: operating programs, collecting information, reviewing and analyzing proposed rules and other actions, and program auditing and oversight.

The need for new resources is particularly conspicuous in implementing 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act. Those amendments updated the law and gave EPA new obligations for addressing toxic chemicals, with deadlines for writing new rules and completing risk evaluations. Despite the legislative boost, the program’s budget has barely increased since 2016 while the workload has doubled.

Lack of resources even creates problems for managing data regarding toxic substances that the agency uses to measure and assess safety and risks.  Systems that store the data are plagued by breakdowns, shutdowns and the lack of IT support to fix problems as they arise. One recent shutdown lasted nearly two weeks

EPA estimates that it needs 200 new staff members to do the needed work, and expects to miss each of 30 specific deadlines in the new law. The backlog of work and the shortage of staff and money could lead to delays lasting years. Among the toxic substances awaiting new regulations are asbestos, a cancer-causing building material, as well as methylene chloride, a paint stripper linked to at least a dozen deaths between 2000 and 2011 among bathtub refinishers.

Congress needs to step up and provide the resources needed to close the gaps in EPA’s ability to protect the environment and restore its capacity to protect our nation’s people and environment.

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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