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Trump’s budget takes a sledgehammer to the EPA

Union members and environmental groups rally outside the Environmental Protection Agency on March 15 to protect jobs at the agency, whose budget would be cut by nearly one-third under President Trump’s proposed budget. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration plans to take a sledgehammer to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Thursday’s proposal by the White House would slash the EPA’s budget by 31 percent — nearly one third — from its current level of $8.1 billion to $5.7 billion. It would cut 3,200 positions, or more than 20 percent of the agency’s current workforce of about 15,000.

“You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it. So, I guess the first place that comes to mind will be the Environmental Protection Agency,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters. “The president wants a smaller EPA. He thinks they overreach, and the budget reflects that.”

The proposed budget, if enacted, would discontinue funding for the Clean Power Plan — the signature Obama administration effort to combat climate change by regulating carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. It would sharply reduce money for the Superfund program and cut the budget for the EPA's prominent Office of Research and Development roughly in half, to $250 million.

It also would eliminate "more than 50 EPA programs." Among them: the Energy Star program, which aims to improve energy efficiency and save consumers money; infrastructure assistance to Alaska Native villages and the Mexico border; a grant program that helps cities and states combat air pollution; and an office that focuses on environmental justice issues.

Washington Post reporter Dennis Brady talks with Mustafa Ali, a former EPA environmental justice leader who served more than two decades with the agency, to discuss the consequences of President Trump's budget proposal. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post, Photo: David McNew/The Washington Post)

Funding for the massive Chesapeake Bay cleanup project, which receives $73 million each year, would be cut to zero. Similar cleanup programs in the Great Lakes — a massive undertaking championed by President Barack Obama and his first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel — and elsewhere in the country would suffer the same fate, returning “responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to state and local entities, allowing the EPA to focus on its highest national priorities,” according to the White House.

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The budget proposal would maintain funding for "high priority" infrastructure investments such as grants and low-cost financing to states and municipalities for drinking water and wastewater projects.

But collectively, the White House wish list would undoubtedly hobble the EPA, leaving the work of safeguarding the nation's water and air primarily up to local officials. Such drastic cuts might not be surprising from President Trump, who as a candidate vowed to get rid of the EPA "in almost every form," leaving only "little tidbits" intact. The agency's new leader, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, has been a key critic of the Obama administration's efforts to fight climate change and reduce fossil-fuel-related pollution.

But the proposed cuts raise questions about what would happen in key areas such as enforcement targeting environmental crimes, an area in which the EPA has often stepped in when states are unable or unwilling to prosecute polluters.

Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance during the Obama administration, said in an email that enforcement staff at the agency has already been reduced 20 percent over the past eight years, bringing it to its lowest level since the enforcement office was created in 1995.

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What's getting cut in Trump's budget

“[More cuts] won’t just drastically reduce EPA enforcement, it will bring it to a halt,” she said. “Not only will the staff be a shadow of its former self, the inspectors, lawyers and criminal agents who would be left would be unable to do their jobs, because these cuts would zero out the already small amount of funds used to do inspections, monitor pollution and file cases.”

John O’Grady, a career EPA employee who heads a national council of EPA unions, said the agency “is already on a starvation diet, with a bare-bones budget and staffing level” similar to what it had decades ago.

“The administration’s proposed budget,” he said, “will be akin to taking away the agency’s bread and water.”