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Energy and Environment

White House eyes plan to cut EPA staff by one-fifth, eliminating key programs

By Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis

March 1, 2017 at 10:02 PM

Environmental Protection Agency headquarters (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The White House has proposed deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency's budget that would reduce the agency's staff by one-fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs, according to details of a plan reviewed by The Washington Post.

While administration officials had already indicated that they intended to increase defense spending at the expense of other discretionary funding, the plan spells out exactly how this new approach will affect long-standing federal programs that have a direct impact on Americans' everyday lives.

"The administration's 2018 budget blueprint will prioritize rebuilding the military and making critical investments in the nation's security," the document says. "It will also identify the savings and efficiencies needed to keep the nation on a responsible fiscal path."

The funding level proposed, which the document says "highlights the trade-offs and choices inherent in pursuing these goals," could have a significant impact on the agency. Its annual budget would drop from $8.2 billion a year to $6.1 billion. And because much of that funding already goes to states and localities in the form of grants, such cuts could have an even greater effect on the EPA's core functions.

Though President Trump professes to care strongly about clean air and clean water, almost no other federal department or agency is as much in the crosshairs at the moment. As a candidate, he vowed to get rid of the EPA "in almost every form," leaving only "little tidbits" intact. The man he chose to lead the agency, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, sued it more than a dozen times in recent years, challenging its legal authority to regulate such things as mercury pollution, smog and carbon emissions from power plants.

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The White House has proposed deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget that would reduce the agency’s staff by one-fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs, according to details of a plan reviewed by The Washington Post. (Reuters)

The plan reflects those past sentiments. As proposed, the EPA's staff would be slashed from its current level of 15,000 to 12,000. Grants to states, as well as its air and water programs, would be cut by 30 percent. The massive Chesapeake Bay cleanup project would receive only $5 million in the next fiscal year, down from its current $73 million.

In addition, 38 separate programs would be eliminated entirely. Grants to clean up brownfields, or abandoned industrial sites, would be gone. Also zeroed out: the radon program, climate change initiatives and funding for Alaskan native villages.

The agency's Office of Research and Development could lose up to 42 percent of its budget, according to an individual apprised of the administration's plans. And the document eliminates funding altogether for the office's "contribution to the U.S. Global Change Research Program," a climate initiative that President George H.W. Bush launched in 1989.

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 25 in Oxon Hill, Md. (The Washington Post)

The staffing reductions, which could be accomplished through a buyout offer as well as layoffs, were among several changes to which the EPA staff was asked to react by the close of business Wednesday. Multiple individuals briefed on the plan confirmed the request by the Office of Management and Budget, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The document acknowledges that the cuts "will create many challenges" but suggests that "by looking ahead and focusing on clean water, clean air and other core responsibilities, rather than activities that are not required by law, EPA will be able to effectively achieve its mission."

Related: [Trump to propose 10 percent spike in defense spending, major cuts to other agencies]

Any cuts would have to be codified through the congressional appropriations process and would probably face resistance from some lawmakers. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a former chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies, said he did not think Congress would approve such a steep drop in funding.

"There's not that much in the EPA, for crying out loud," he said, noting that Republicans had already reduced the agency's budget dramatically in recent years.

Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, declined to comment Wednesday on the cuts targeted but said in an email that the panel "will carefully look at the budget proposal once it is sent to Congress."

The EPA also would not comment on the budget proposal. But its new administrator cautioned this week that the particulars of the budget remain in flux.

"I am concerned about the grants that have been targeted, especially around water infrastructure, and those very important state revolving funds," Pruitt told the publication E&E; News after Trump's address to Congress on Tuesday. He said he already had spoken with OMB Director Mick Mulvaney about the agency's funding.

"What's important for us is to educate OMB on what the priorities of the agency are, from water infrastructure to Superfund, providing some of those tangible benefits to our citizens," he said, "while at the same time making sure that we reallocate, re-prioritize in our agency to do regulatory reform to get back within the bounds of Congress."

Related: [Pruitt to EPA employees: ‘We don’t have to choose’ between jobs and the environment]

It is unclear whether Pruitt's appeal would produce any ­changes: The document states that any requests from agencies to increase or reallocate funds must be accompanied by budgetary offsets. Those could include "alternative funding cuts, balance cancellations or viable user fees."

It instructs agency officials to "make sure any appeal is consistent with campaigns or other policy statements."

Agencies must submit any alternative budget proposals to OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs by Friday, the document states, and OMB will convene a meeting April 15 to discuss the "initial draft of the workforce reduction plan."

As details of the blueprint emerged, environmental advocates and the EPA's most recent administrator blasted the White House proposal.

"This budget is a fantasy if the administration believes it will preserve EPA's mission to protect public health," Gina McCarthy, who served as the agency's leader from 2013 through the end of the Obama administration, said in a statement Wednesday.

"It ignores the need to invest in science and to implement the law," she said. "It ignores the lessons of history that led to EPA's creation 46 years ago. And it ignores the American people calling for its continued support."

S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said in an email that the proposed budget would devastate critical federal financial support for communities across the country.

"These cuts, if enacted by Congress, will rip the heart and soul out of the national air pollution control program and jeopardize the health and welfare of tens of millions of people around the country," Becker said.

The instructions to the EPA signal how the new administration plans to delegate many responsibilities to the states even as it decreases the money they will receive from the federal government.

The document directs the agency to get states "to assume more active enforcement roles" when it comes to federal environmental standards. In ­addition, it says, the agency should curtail its compliance-monitoring activities.

"Basically, the direction is to reduce enforcement, which is already pretty strained," said Eric Shaeffer, head of the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, and a former head of the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement. He noted that state programs are often "woefully underfunded" and at the mercy of state politics and pressure from large companies.

Environmental justice activists are particularly alarmed at what they may face with the new administration.

The document states that it supports the idea of environmental justice, but it would eliminate that EPA office and "assumes any future EJ specific policy work can be transferred to the Office of Policy."

On the South Side of Chicago, the neighborhood where Cheryl Johnson lives is known as "the toxic doughnut" because of the 200 leaking underground storage tanks and 50 landfills there.

The EPA office has given People for Community Recovery, for which Johnson is the executive director, and other organizations money to conduct technical assessment of local facilities and provide training to educate residents. And, Johnson added, it also has provided a place where residents could appeal to force local polluters to come into compliance with federal standards.

Losing that resource "would devastate a community like mine," she said. It would be "like putting us in a chamber, to be disposed of."

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report. 

More from Energy and Environment:
Hundreds of current, former EPA employees urge Senate to reject Trump's nominee for the agency

Scott Pruitt, longtime adversary of EPA, confirmed to lead the agency

Trump EPA official juggles two jobs in two Washingtons, and it hasn't gone well

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Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's senior national affairs correspondent, covering how the new administration is transforming a range of U.S. policies and the federal government itself. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues.

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